Not Your Parents’ Education


When I was in high school, the idea of personalized learning or a personalized curriculum seemed laughable. My job position and my school definitely hadn’t been invented or even thought of yet! However, throughout human history, learning used to be highly personal through educational concepts such as oral histories and apprenticeships. In fact, it was only with the advent of industrialized education that the de-personalization of education actually commenced.

Now the pendulum is swinging back. But as Richard Culatta stated in his Ted Talk, it is not enough to simply “digitize the status quo”. Personalization using technology can’t just use a traditional classroom’s methodologies and setup. Personalized learning provides alternatives to all students to better suit their needs as well as the needs of a changing economy and workforce.

Many times the “one-size-fits-all” approach is not effective for the student or the teacher. So you may be wondering…how exactly does our school program accomplish personalized student learning? Well, try to bear with me as I explain.

Instead of being a typical classroom teacher, my job position is a hybrid teacher leadership role at a blended learning public high school program that serves students in our county that feel traditional school is not meeting their needs. Participating public schools in our country range from the top ten in the state to schools designated as “failing” by NCLB standards.

I instruct classes two days a week, advise students throughout their time in our program, create personalized learning options, and coordinate curriculum. Some days I run small groups or 1:1 learning. Our entire curriculum model (developed and maintained by all of our teachers) is always available and accessible to students online. If personalized learning is filtered through technology, then technology can also collect useful data to help students make decisions to best fulfill their education.

Personalized learning does not mean utilizing teachers any less. In fact, if schools and administrators are implementing true personalized learning, they need educators just as much or more.

My program has developed a competency-based model where students have to demonstrate their proficiency and mastery of national and state standards. Student projects are designed to be interdisciplinary and students can earn credits in multiple areas with the same project at their own individualized pace. Of course, there are required courses that every student in our state has to complete to graduate high school. The difference with personalized learning is letting students know that they can demonstrate competency in multiple ways.

I truly believe that especially for high schools, personalized learning models similar to the current program I helped build address the issues that traditional school setups are facing.

Traditionally, we have been asking students to sit and receive knowledge from one person when post-graduation, that knowledge is flowing all around them. Nowhere else will their education be compartmentalized and fragmented as it is when they’re in a traditional high school. After high school, success and achievement are not confined to a specific age. It is for all of these reasons that more programs should consider personalizing student learning.

Quick Tips for Personalizing Student Learning

  • Embrace technology
  • Schedule flexibility
  • Empower teachers & students to customize their learning paths
  • Allow for multiple ways for assignments to be completed
  • Create collaborative work time for teachers and students


Headden, S. (2013). “The promise of personalized learning.” Education Next, 13(4), 14-20.  Hoover Institution. Stanford, CA.

sarahSarah Giddings is a National Board Certified teacher in social studies and history. She is currently an advisor, multi-subject instructor, and curriculum coordinator for the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education—a Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium high school program. She is a 2015-2016 National Hope Street Group fellow and a Michigan Educator Voices fellow.

Can We Interest You in Teacher Leadership?

ptone-e1421769385476By Paul Toner, President of The VIVA Project

Last weekend in The New York Times, Mokoto Rich wrote that “school districts have gone from handing out pink slips to scrambling to hire teachers,” thanks to an improving US economy.

In an op-ed to the Times three days later, Can We Interest You in Teaching?, Frank Bruni countered that “Teaching can’t compete. When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere.”

Bruni’s three-pronged approach to making the teaching profession more attractive to college students—“more money, more independence, and more respect”—is on-target.

However, while better pay and higher prestige are crucial, increasing teacher autonomy by involving them more directly in the policy-making process and school management is the most straightforward solution we can achieve today.

That’s right: teacher autonomy and leadership is not a mirage-like vision of the future. It’s already happening now, via organizations like The VIVA Project, NEA, AFT, Teach Plus, Teach to Lead, NNSTOY and numerous other teacher voice and advocacy groups.

Further, Mr. Bruni notes that “Education leaders disagree over how much of a voice” teachers should have. But The VIVA Project’s history proves that education leaders and policymakers—from Secretary Arne Duncan to governors, district superintendents and school boards—are all eager and willing to hear from classroom educators.

They want to capitalize on teachers’ wisdom and expertise. They’re ready for a new breed of teacher leaders to step forward.

If we want to draw the best and brightest to teaching, providing them with good salaries and bestowing more respect on the profession are both critical steps. But if we want those teachers to remain in the profession, we can’t keep leaving them out of education policy decisions.

Policymakers must continue to work with organizations like The VIVA Project to engage teachers in leading their profession through policy-making at the local, state and national levels. If those teacher leaders continue to step forward, and policymakers continue to listen, higher salaries and increased respect will surely follow.

The Potential to Lead


by Freeda Pirillis

Teachers strive to foster leadership and initiative in their students, as they recognize the future workplace will require a different set of skills. Our students will need to collaborate, to problem solve, to compromise, to craft conversations and articulate their thinking in a manner that persuades others to follow. There are those students who naturally lead and those who willingly follow. Yet our goal is the same. Teach to lead, and lead to inspire.

Teachers differentiate their classrooms to reflect their students’ personalities with the understanding that some students shy away from the limelight and quietly resist, while others actively participate in the social construct and community of the classroom. There are those outliers who do not lead, who neither resist nor follow, but sit restlessly awaiting recognition of their unique contribution to the world.

As educators, we have a heavy responsibility to identify in our students the leadership qualities they possess in order to ensure a successful transition into adulthood. And for those students who don’t naturally lead, we work to foster a strong sense of self so they are able to constructively contribute to the workplace and the social world.

Teachers, much like their students, strive for recognition of their strengths, their unique contributions to the world, and for opportunities to participate in collaborative conversations that are grounded in their experiences. Teachers specialize in content, in developing students’ social/emotional needs, and in developing curriculum that is reflective of their students’ interests. Yet, in talking with teachers I meet across the country, the meaningful opportunities for teachers to lead themselves are not easy to find, particularly in their school building.

Leadership is not often fostered, encouraged, recognized, or valued by administrators and district leadership. Teachers who naturally want to lead are not able to find the space to do so in their school buildings, so they look beyond their classrooms and past their administrators for what might lie ahead. Why aren’t teacher leaders being celebrated in their schools? Is there a potential for administrators to harness the power of a teacher’s passion to act and drive their school forward?

Examining the culture of a school directly reflects an administrator’s ability to identify the strengths each teacher possesses and tap into their potential to lead others. Likened to a classroom, administrators must recognize the natural ability of teachers to lead their peers in collaborative discussions, to develop and drive new initiatives, and to lead outside of their school building as an advocate for their students, their colleagues, and the profession as a whole.

Further, administrators must identify multiple ways to engage, recognize, and distinguish those teachers who may quietly resist the limelight or traditional leadership roles. Their leadership may be reflected in their classroom practice, in the mastery they’ve achieved over their career that inspires their students to follow. That, too, is teacher leadership.

As the teacher leadership movement grows in the U.S. and educational organizations look to identify the greatest, most passionate, and most driven individuals to inform educational policy, administrators, too, must begin to look inward towards the teachers in their school community for the positive distinctions that demonstrate leadership.

Imagine the potential for students, parents, and the school community when teachers are being sought out for their expertise, celebrated for their contributions to the profession, and elevated. Classroom teachers can attest to increased student engagement and learning when students are recognized for their strengths.

Imagine a school culture that celebrates, elevates, and promotes leadership. Imagine the possibilities.

freeda_300Freeda Pirillis, NBCT, First Grade teacher, 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow

Is Kindergarten Really Kindergarten?

The Kindergarten Dilemma
by Judy Smizik

Article after article has been written regarding the conflict in kindergarten education. Is “too much, too soon” helpful? harmful? inappropriate? beneficial? or all of the above? These questions have been popping up in educational journals, research articles, opinion pieces, and parent magazines.

Why the controversy? Have you visited a kindergarten class recently?  Kindergarten education has changed so much over the past ten years, you would barely recognize a kindergarten classroom as being kindergarten.

I was a Kindergarten teacher for over thirty-five years. I chose to teach kindergarten because I felt that was the most important time in children’s lives. Back then, Kindergarten was the time to build a strong academic foundation, to introduce children to formal schooling and joyful learning. It was a time for children to foster positive relationships with their peers and school staff.

Kindergarten exposed children to the world around them through creative experiences that incorporated the arts, rich literature, and meaningful learning. It addressed the needs of the “whole” child.  Kindergarten programs were developed to allow for the differences that naturally occur in kindergarten-age children. The curriculum and program were flexible enough to accommodate the educational learning needs of all children.  Play was a vital component of all kindergarten classrooms.  Today many children are not allowed to play.  I have been in kindergarten classrooms where there were no toys or standard kindergarten equipments such as blocks, puzzles, and dramatic play areas.

Many of today’s kindergartens no longer reflect the basic mission Frederick Froebel set out to create for Kindergarten.  Today,  children are sitting for long periods of time, learning curricula that were once considered first grade skills. Instruction is focused on teaching kindergarten children to read, write, and perform mathematical skills involving adding, subtracting, and advanced problem solving.  While some children may be developmentally ready to read and perform advanced mathematical thinking skills,  many are not.

Last September, I visited a kindergarten classroom that was administering a district-mandated writing sample assessment. The directions to the teacher stated:

Distribute copies of the prompt, writing papers, and checklist. This assessment should be administered to the whole class. Today, you will draw and write about fun things you do with your family. Be sure to include at least one event. You will also describe your feelings and include an ending to your personal narrative. You will do this by yourself. You will draw your picture in the box and write about the event on the lines below.

The checklist that was given to each child was a list of criteria that included:

I included an ending for my personal narrative that told how I felt.
I used the words me, I, You, and Us.
I began each sentence with a capital letter and capitalized I.
I end each sentence with punctuation (.,?,!).
I spelled words I know correctly.

Do the developers of this checklist realize that most beginning kindergarten students can’t read, nor should they be able to read?  Even first graders would have difficulty reading this checklist.

The Task Planning Template came from applying ideas from McTigh & Wiggins’ Understanding by Design Professional Workbook (2004, JThompson Center for Assessment)

When sharing this writing activity with a few retired primary teachers and reading specialists, I asked, “What grade level do you feel this task was designed for?”

They all responded, “Second grade.”

Children entering kindergarten today are at the same developmental levels as they were a decade or two ago. Their academic and developmental needs have not changed. Children entering kindergarten come at all different readiness levels and therefore the curriculum needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the educational needs of all children.

Kindergarten should be just that: Kindergarten!  Frederick Froebel’s blooming garden of children needs to bloom again for the sake of our young vulnerable children who yearn to learn about the world around them.  A true kindergarten is a place where children develop friendships, where children are free to move about, explore, create, imagine, problem solve, and learn at their natural pace in a nurturing and enriching environment that accommodates their social, emotional, physical, and developmentally appropriate academic needs.

It is not beneficial, helpful, or appropriate to create a kindergarten program that does not meet the educational needs of our young children. We are doing more harm than good when we ask young children to perform tasks that are beyond their natural ability. I witnessed young five-year-olds putting their heads down and crying over performance tasks that were developmentally inappropriate.

Is this what we want for our children? Are we setting up kindergarten programs that promote stress and failure instead of true kindergarten programs that allow children to bloom and grow at their own developmental pace? Bring back the toys, paints, clay, building blocks, music, dramatic play areas, hands-on experiences that foster joyful learning! All of our children will benefit from an enriching, authentic, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten environment.

Judy_SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

The Best Way to Keep Students and Teachers Safe

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

“April is the cruelest month…” When TS Eliot wrote that first line of “The Wasteland” almost 100 years ago, could he have known what significance it would have to American survivors of gun violence and domestic terrorism today? What is it about April that made the disaffected want to bomb a federal building and a marathon, or to kill classmates and teachers in Virginia and Colorado? As the earth awakens with flowers and green grass, why does violence awaken in some evil hearts?

On April 20, after I changed my Facebook picture to a columbine flower with a tear falling from its petal, I read Charles Blow’s column in The New York Times, “Has the N.R.A. Won?”. Mass shooting incidents always result in a spike in gun sales, but the wider question is if gun “control” advocates have failed to make a moral argument for the fact that public safety is reduced when greater numbers of more powerful guns are in ordinary citizens’ homes, cars, bags and pockets. The 300 million guns in the United States are enough for every person to own one, but in fact the percentage of Americans who own guns is around 35%.

What does this mean for teachers in schools? We work in inherently dangerous environments. Schools are attractive to those seeking to do harm: large numbers of vulnerable citizens (women and children) congregating on a predictable schedule. What is the best way to prevent mass death in schools? Should teachers be expected to defend their classrooms with guns as so many Americans expect to defend their personal safety?

If those ideas sound silly, it’s because they are. When people live together as societies, there is absolutely no way to be completely insulated from violent crime. Mass shootings and certainly mass violence are not uniquely American. March’s shooting at a university in Kenya resulted in the murder of 147. Tragically, mass deaths happen: the Germanwings pilot inflicted nearly equal carnage with an airplane and a mountain.

What makes the United States a more dangerous place to live is not “crime”. It’s the sheer number of guns in our country. They result in what should be an unacceptable amount of random, senseless shootings in homes, on streets, and in public. Americans are twenty times more likely to be murdered by a gun than citizens in other developed countries. These completely preventable deaths are robbing communities of their futures.

The best way to keep students and teachers safe is for better laws to be created that keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people. You may think that a background check is necessary to purchase a gun. It’s not: guns are sold to all kinds of people who are legally prohibited from possessing them at places like gun shows and on the internet. Without universal background checks, it’s legal to sell a gun to a felon. Some states do require background checks for all gun purchases, but until there is a federal law, the state-by-state approach is weak. After all, it’s not very hard for a felon in Connecticut to travel to New Hampshire.

If teachers are armed in schools, the one predictable outcome will be more shootings in schools. More guns anywhere means more deaths. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Having a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home, regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns in the home.” Bringing guns to school will have the same effect.

KMorosky-150x150VIVA Teacher Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches online at Connections Education. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

An Innovative Way to Improve Teacher Observations

ptoneby Paul Toner, President of the VIVA Project

Observations are a vital part of teaching practice and career development, but sometimes they can be a burdensome source of tension between teachers and administrators. So researchers at Harvard have been experimenting with new technology based on the input of teachers and administrators to improve and streamline the observation process.

Specifically, the Best Foot Forward project gave digital video cameras to 347 teachers in Colorado, California, Delaware, and Georgia, who then recorded themselves teaching over several class periods and chose a few to submit to their administrators as classroom observations. A test group of 108 administrators were then able to watch the videos at their leisure and provide time-stamped observations.

Our own VIVA Idea Exchange™ with MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) in 2013, entitled Reflections from the Classroom, showed that teachers and administrators overwhelmingly welcome new technology, not just when it comes to student success but also when it can help them as professionals.

In their report, our teachers said “The MET research makes clear that technology not only plays a vital part in how students learn, but in how educators can reflect, refine and implement new teaching practices from something as simple as a video of a lesson to creating new ways for teachers to share, communicate, and reflect with each other.”

And the results from the Best Foot Forward project at Harvard bears that out. The teachers who participated felt as though their observation evaluations were more fair, and that their supervisors were more supportive. They even reported fewer disagreements and clearer steps to improve their teaching practices.

Also, administrators were able to observe teachers whenever their schedules allowed, instead of during predetermined class periods, and reported that teachers were less defensive during their post-observation conferences.

It’s just another example of how listening to educators—in this case, their ideas about improving observations with video—can lead to better practices and results, not just for students, but for teachers and administrators as well.

Let’s Be Honest

by Freeda Pirillis

Educators possess a moral authority that exemplifies the values we strive to teach our children, our students, and even the adults around us: the value of being honest. We teach Character Education lessons on communicating your feelings when another person has called you a name, identify mentor texts that demonstrate how children can stand up for themselves when they are being bullied by a peer, and engage our students in role playing activities to build their self-esteem.

There’s a natural developmental milestone children reach when they begin to realize being completely honest is not always best. Children start to recognize when and where honesty is valued, how to convey a message without hurting another person’s feelings, and when it’s better not to say anything at all. As educators and parents, we begin to explicitly identify those situations for children so they can transition into adulthood with a deeper understanding of the human condition and successfully navigate the social world.

Let’s shift the focus to educators, who are at the forefront of shaping children’s understanding of themselves in a world full of conflict. How do educators learn to navigate their school buildings, their districts, or the world of education? How do educators craft their conversations with colleagues or their principals? Are they truly being honest when conversing with the various stakeholders in their school building?

In the book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, Rick Hess reports teachers are simply not being honest. When dissecting the topic of professional development, Rick Hess reported that in 2012, 73% of teachers surveyed felt their professional development was excellent or good. In 2013, 60% of teachers that teach ELA or Math stated their CCSS PD to be extremely helpful. Yet, as teachers, we can attest to the numerous times we’ve heard a colleague privately complaining about the last PD they attended or the grade level meeting they sat through. What accounts for the discrepancy between what teachers say and what teachers “say”?

We could look no further than a school’s culture. There are some school buildings where teachers are hesitant to be honest on a survey or on an exit slip for fear of being singled out by an administrator.  There are schools where administrators ask for honesty from their staff, but respond with disappointment or frustration when teachers provide critical feedback. There are teachers who have become apathetic simply because no one has ever asked them what they think. What can be done to improve the professional culture of these school buildings so teachers are providing honest, critical feedback to their colleagues and administrators?

Much like teachers, school leaders possess a moral authority to establish trusting relationships with their staff, likened to the classroom community that educators strive to build with their students. A community based on shared responsibility, respect for one another, and trust that when one student (or teacher) shares their thinking, it will be received with an open mind and a willingness from the listener to meet in the middle.

A school’s culture is a reflection of a school leader’s ability to establish systems for collecting feedback from teachers that not only engages the top 5% of teachers, or those that are often the loudest in the room, but the remaining 95% who have valuable perspectives to offer, but may not be willing to raise a quiet hand. As educators, we strive to engage all our students and validate each person’s contribution.

Providing teachers with a multitude of platforms for providing honest, critical feedback can ensure school leaders have an accurate pulse of how teachers are feeling and what they can do to improve the school culture. Engaging all teachers in the hard, but crucial work of fostering a culture of openness and respect will result in greater gains for students, greater teacher retention, and an increased commitment to the school leaders in the building. Honesty is a virtue which necessitates open dialogue between all stakeholders, within the classroom and beyond.

freeda_300Freeda Pirillis is a First Grade Teacher in Chicago, an NBCT, and a 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

An ESEA Reauthorization That Could Empower Teachers

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by Paul Toner, President of the VIVA Project

An update of the ESEA is long overdue, and this week, the Senate has a real chance to improve it with the following bipartisan amendments based on the wisdom and input of classroom educators, written in collaboration with the Teaching Policy Fellows at Teach Plus.

First, the Bennet-Collins Teacher Leadership Amendment would enable states to use Title II funds for teacher leadership training. In our own VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have consistently asked for more opportunities for evidence-based professional development, more time to serve as mentors and coaches, and more chances to collaborate.

In our latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core, for instance, teachers across the country said, “Often [professional development] opportunities take the form of one-off workshops, where information is presented in one day with little or no follow-through…[but] professional development must be sustained over time and embedded within regular work hours. Teachers require the opportunity to work together on departmental and grade-level teams to interpret the standards and develop resources and curricula that align with their school’s mission and vision.”

Just imagine the difference $2.5 billion per year could make when put toward professional development, both internal and external. This amendment would allow all 50 states to gage which schools need the most help creating teacher and principal leadership opportunities, and then allocate Title II funds as it sees fit, including to third-party nonprofit organizations.

Second, the STEM Master Teacher Corps Act, will ensure that schools find and keep STEM teachers while helping them serve as mentors and role models, and ensuring they have enough time during regular school hours to serve in leadership and mentor positions, instead of increased responsibilities after school.

Third, the Baldwin-Cassidy SMART Act (Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely) will reduce over-testing, one of the key concerns of our VIVA teachers in the latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core. The SMART Act will take a data-based approach to make sure student assessments are well-aligned with standards, curricula, and that they never conflict with a teacher’s need for plenty of instructional, planning, and collaboration time.

Finally, the Bennet-Hatch Innovation Amendment will allow teachers and schools to embrace innovative programs by providing funding for the ones that show promise. In our VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have expressed their excitement for new and different ways to improve student learning and close achievement gaps, and this amendment would make those kinds of groundbreaking programs easier to implement and reproduce.

If you believe, like we do, that teachers deserve more opportunities for career growth, more autonomy in deciding what works best for students, and a better student assessment strategy, make sure your senator knows how you feel before these ESEA amendments hit the senate floor later this week.


Lowering the Expectations of Our Students

by Kelly Waller

Should students receive half credit for an assignment they didn’t even bother to turn in? That is the new trend sweeping across the country in our public school system. District leaders are either strongly encouraging or making it mandatory for teachers to change their grading criteria so that 50% is the lowest score a student can earn, even when they fail to turn in the assignment.

According to Douglas B. Reeves, Chairman and Founder of the Center for Performance assessment in Boston, “it is mathematically disproportionate when a student receives a 0 on a 100-point scale when the interval between numerical and letter grades is 10 points. Therefore, when applying a 0 to a score, the interval between a D and an F is not 10 points, but 60 points.” (The Case Against the Zero).

So, taking this theory into consideration, should schools and teachers change their grading scale so that a 50% is the lowest possible score and, likewise, give a student credit for no work at all?

The logic sounds solid, but can (or should) teachers alter their ideals and make this adjustment?  After all, our education system is not only responsible for instilling knowledge in their students, but also for life skills such as accountability. When our students grow up, will they still get paid for their job if they don’t show up to work?

There is also another factor that should be taken into consideration: the weighing of the assignments. Most teachers, me included, weigh an assessment at a higher percentage than a homework assignment. So, if a student doesn’t turn in their homework, a “0” will not drop them significantly. On the other hand, if a student decides they don’t want to complete their essay assessment, should they still receive 50%?

As a middle school teacher in the public school system, I feel an immense amount of pressure from my administration and district to make sure my students pass, especially since the dropout rate in the United States continues to rise. However, should one of those opportunities be to change a grade and give credit that wasn’t earned?

Like most teachers I’ve spoken to, I already give students every opportunity possible to help them pass my class (extra time, replacing lost materials, extra credit, in-school make-up work days, parental communication, incentives, etc.). Should changing their grade now be one of those opportunities?

If we continue to lower our expectations for our students, how will they be able to compete with graduates from higher performing schools that expect students to be successful by earning their grades?

Furthermore, how will they learn the importance of responsibility if they no longer need to be accountable for their own work?

Kelly Waller 150Kelly Waller teaches middle school language arts in Hillsborough County, Florida Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.

Friday, May 8, 2015

✧ Math Teaching Alternatives

Teachers are using theatre and rap to introduce math concepts to students. The results? Engaged students. 

✧ Boston Ed

Boston’s upcoming superintendent, Tommy Chang, wants to improve Boston’s public schools.  “Our job is not to just create innovations, it’s to create innovators . . . among teachers, and parents, and administrators.”

✧ Math Textbooks

New research from the National Research and Development Center on Cognition and Mathematics Instruction looks at how students learn and uses that knowledge to produce better math textbooks.

✧ Community Learning

Preschools like The Fowler Head Start Program inspire students (and their parents) to dream and pursue their dreams. By bridging the relationship between teachers, administrators, and families, schools can help create academic interests and imagination among students and the community.

✧ CCSS Skills

A new study finds that some skills don’t translate to Common Core assessments, like rote memorization, but mastering theory and connecting big ideas produce higher scores.