Friday, March 13, 2015

 For Richer or For Poorer

The Washington Post reports that in 23 states, richer school districts get more local funding than poorer districts, supporting Education Secretary Arne Duncan allegation that we have “separate and unequal” school systems despite federal funding strategies.

✧ Where Have All The Good Teachers Gone?

Nowhere. Despite widespread misconceptions, there is not a mass exodus of quality teachers leaving the profession.

 Arne Duncan Talks Education

This week at the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the need for higher standards, reductions in “overtesting,” fostering innovation in students, and skepticism over the NCLB reauthorization.

 Kentucky Teens Raise Their Voices

A group of Kentucky teens are are struggling to pass a bill that would allow local school boards to include a student on committees that screen candidates for superintendent jobs.

 VIVA Teachers at Today’s Teaching & Learning Conference 2015

VIVA Teacher Lesley Hagelgans spoke on a panel alongside US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this morning at the Teaching & Leading Conference 2015, where teachers from across the country are coming to share their work, grow their skills, and get inspired. Here’s Lesley’s latest VIVA blog: Crafting a New Career Ladder for teachers.

So proud of these teacher leaders with @arneduncan @MrsHatMMS @GenevieveDeBose #teachtolead #TLConf2015 @usedgov

— Maddie (@maddief) March 13, 2015


Breaking Through the Barriers Between Disciplines

A Job for 21st-Century Teacher Leaders

By Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty


Our students have never lived in a world without Google. And through the increasing prevalence of technology, they possess unprecedented access to knowledge and exposure to divergent opinions. At the same time, they live in a world in which global problems abound, and many of these call for interdisciplinary solutions.

In charting this terra incognita, the role of the teacher leader seems more essential than ever for mapping a curriculum for the 21st Century and beyond—one that not only empowers students with relevant learning experiences, but also empowers their teachers.

Specifically, as teacher leaders, we work collaboratively and diligently with our interdisciplinary teams of teachers to remove the unnatural divisions between academic disciplines at the middle- and high-school levels.

  • How can an ordinary person change society?

  • Why do leaders sometimes lie?

  • Is it possible to solve a problem as big as child labor or poverty with just a peace treaty or agreement? Or does there always have to be violence?

  • How can children show leadership in a society?

  • Do you think that the way we are currently living is “civilized?”

As veteran seventh-grade English Language Arts teachers and teacher leaders of our grade-level teams, we know that we do not have all the answers to these questions. In this digital age, we also know that our students shouldn’t be expected to leave us as walking, talking encyclopedias, either.

In fact, for us, the mark of true learning is when our students leave us with questions—interesting questions that indicate authentic mulling over of academic content, important questions that seem to drive further exploration.

In June, our seventh-grade students filled out a Google Form in preparation for a Socratic Seminar that would culminate our annual interdisciplinary capstone project. They were asked to provide new questions to prompt discussion, but their questions also revealed meaningful reflections on our shared instructional practice.

For example, Tyler’s response demonstrated that his questions weren’t for the teachers, but for his peers:

I have one major question for the class and that is: Is it okay for someone to commit a crime if it’s for a good reason? Why or why not?

Nathalie’s question elaborated on a theme from our Shakespeare unit:

Does being born into power make you a leader?

Omar’s question evoked research he conducted in Latin class on the effects of deforestation in Ancient Rome:

What can cause a global issue to become extreme enough for civilized people to react?

Jenny’s questioning seemed to indicate that an earlier debate in Humanities class had hit an emotional nerve:

How do you think life on earth would be impacted if everyone had an opportunity to earn more than 10 dollars a day? If those who need a job can’t get any and actually wants one, whose fault is that if they’re always told to get one?

And so, in 2008 we felt ready for change, spurred by our beliefs that early adolescents:

  • want to understand and imagine a world beyond their everyday existence,

  • should be encouraged to actively explore ideas that are important to them,

  • can apply their learning in school in order to engage in rigorous and creative problem-solving around global issues.

Thus began the design of an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum that deepens students’ understanding of essential concepts and poses questions that challenge students to synthesize their learning across content areas.

Re-creating curriculum for students required teacher leadership in order for grade-level teacher teams to embrace this unconventional instructional approach. The result has been the development, over time, of a divergent school culture that embraces risk-taking, collaboration, shared leadership, intellectual curiosity and persistence: a culture that drives both teaching and learning across the entire grade level and is used as a model for other teacher teams.

So, for the past seven years, we have been developing our roles as teacher leaders of this interdisciplinary and, some might say, disruptive approach to learning–a vision which has recently been validated by the Common Core. We have found that this type of learning requires leadership and collaboration from teachers who are willing to break away from the traditional curriculum and forge a new path.

Through our personal journey, we have discovered key attributes necessary for teacher leaders and collaborating teachers embarking on this work, as well as strategies for modeling them. There are too many to mention in one blog post; however, being a reflective and open practitioner who is willing to embrace feedback and change is the most critical to beginning this process.

As accomplished teachers, we know that feedback and reflection are necessary components to our work, which consequently leaves us destined to a recurrent state of flux. The fluidity of curriculum as a result of change–both self-initiated and brought upon by outside forces—has been a constant of our work together.

One of the greatest obstacles we have encountered as teacher leaders is that this kind of dynamism isn’t always welcomed by all of the teachers, nor administrators, with whom we have worked over the years. Once a curriculum is established, many educators tend to prefer editing and simplifying to any kind of robust change, and sometimes effective teacher leadership requires implementing this type of tailoring, too.

However, if we constantly seek feedback and are consistently reflective about the feedback provided to us—which is one aspect of our leadership—it becomes essential to develop and learn how to foster a certain comfort level with variability in the curriculum.

As a collaborative team of lead teachers, our shared reflection, mutual trust and honest feedback with each other eases us through the more stressful moments of making this happen.

Despite the challenges, we know that this is work worth doing because we know that what we do with feedback determines our success as teachers. It is critical for teachers to both seek feedback and to reflect on it actionably.

Feedback should come from a myriad of inputs: from students, parents, assessment data, administrators, other teachers, and any person or organization with a vested interest in the classroom. The goal of feedback is for us to stand back and be able to articulate our successes and failures.

Successful teachers communicate with their students and develop relationships with them and their families that invite them to get a pulse on how effectively things are going, or perhaps on how ineffectively things may be going.

In addition, when another content area teacher provides anecdotal evidence of a student making a connection to something learned in our content area, or when a student connects content learned in another class to ours, we know that that student has begun to successfully think and problem solve in the interdisciplinary manner we believe will help that student achieve.

Furthermore, most successful teachers we know possess a heightened awareness and curiosity about what is happening in their classrooms, what is happening in the world outside their classrooms, and what their role should be in bridging these two worlds. For this reason, we also feel successful when we find that what we uncover through our reflective practices aligns with current educational research.

It is our goal as successful educators to both maintain and model high expectations, pushing our students as well as ourselves to think creatively and to develop a willingness to take intellectual risks. Yet we also see success when our students appreciate how much fun can be had in life and learning, and when they are able to connect the two in a way that inspires them to engage in rigorous problem-solving and thinking—viewing learning as a challenge worth their time and effort.

Feedback can be found through the kinds of questions our students ask us and the kinds of questions we ask of them and those that we ask each other as colleagues. Our collaboration begins with our work together as leaders and then translates into a consistent approach with our interdisciplinary teaching teams.

This builds the foundation for our work as reflective practitioners–something both of us learned during our process for becoming National Board Certified teachers.

This approach models the role of being a lifelong learner: one who reflects on the surrounding world and draws from knowledge and information provided from many directions in order to problem-solve through life’s issues, and, moreover, interact with and even change our society and culture in meaningful and impactful ways.

Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty are both National Board Certified teachers who work in the Boston Public Schools. They can be reached at and


Kellyanne Mahoney


Catherine O’Flaherty


VIVA Teacher Lesley Hagelgans to Speak at Teaching and Learning Conference with US Secretary of Education

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 2.14.39 PM

Lesley Hagelgans, a VIVA Teacher and member of the VIVA National Task Force Idea Exchange, will speak about teacher leadership alongside US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a panel this Friday at the Teaching and Learning 2015 Conference in Washington, D.C.

Secretary Duncan announced the Teach to Lead initiative at last year’s conference, and Lesley represented VIVA at the Teach to Lead Summit in Denver earlier this year (she even blogged about it for us).

Lesley’s panel will be streamed live at the conference’s website, starting at 10am EST on Friday, beginning with some opening remarks from Secretary Duncan, and followed by a discussion with Lesley and three other teachers who participated in Teach to Lead Summits:   Geneviève DuBose (New York), Christopher Todd (Connecticut) and Jennifer Aponte (Massachusetts).

VIVA’s own Engagement Program Manager, Jamie O’Leary, and President, Paul Toner, will be there, too.

We’ll be live-tweeting and posting photos and videos of the conference all weekend, but make sure to tune in at 10am EST Friday morning for Lesley’s panel.

Lesley teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Michigan. Check out some of her latest blog posts for VIVA:

Crafting a New Career Ladder for Teachers

When Did You Know You Were A Teacher Leader?

Flip the Script on Teacher Evaluations

Thursday, March 12, 2015

✧ Arkansas Lowers the Ed Bar

The Arkansas state senate passed a bill that lowers the requirements to become the state’s education commissioner, “to clear the way” for former Republican state senator Johnny Key—who does not meet the current qualifications—to serve in the post. Arkansas schools ranked 46th in Education Week’s 2015 State of the States.

 Involving Teachers in Ed Policy

An op-ed in The Guardian by British education innovator Sir Alan Steer asked the UK’s upcoming Parliament to involve more teachers in education policy. We agree, Sir Steer.

 iPads for Education

Apple announced plans for extensive changes to its “iPads for Education” program later this year. Namely, to make apps faster and easier to use in the classroom.

✧ Teachers of the Year on Common Core

NNSTOY released an insightful new video series featuring 12 State Teachers of the Year and their thoughts on the implementation of Common Core.

✧ VIVA Teachers at Teaching & Learning Conference 2015

Superstar VIVA Teacher, Lesley Hagelgans, will speak on a panel alongside US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan this weekend at the Teaching & Leading Conference 2015, where teachers from across the country are coming to share their work, grow their skills, and get inspired. Here’s Lesley’s latest VIVA blog: Crafting a New Career Ladder for teachers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

 SC Replaces Common Core

On Monday, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee adopted new education standards for math and English to replace the Common Core State Standards. Governor Nikki Haley (R) has been a vocal critic of Common Core, including a strongly worded speech last year where she stated: “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children.”

 5 Big Ways Education Will Change by 2020

The worlds most innovative education companies were asked to identify the top 5 ways education will change by 2020. Their answers: more mobility, teacher support in edtech, competency-based certifications over diplomas, student voice advocacy, and the need for educators and institutions to adapt to changes.

 AP US History in OK

Oklahoma Senator John Sparks proposed an education bill amendment that would prevent funding from going to any school teaching AP U.S. History, require all parents to take and pass a drug test, and prohibit parents from using the money to buy curriculum materials tied to Common Core standards.

On a related note, VIVA Teacher Nancy Kunsman’s latest blog urges Oklahoma to stand firm on AP US History.

Grassroots Education in MS

“Fed Up with 50th” (referring to Mississippi’s perennial last-place finish in state education rankings), a Mississippi grassroots group of concerned parents and teachers, is pushing lawmakers in Jackson, MS to fund public education.

Stem Role Models for Girls

While women dominate the teaching profession, new studies say more women would study math and science in college if there were more female math and science teachers in high school.

Gender Divide

The latest reports from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that boys continue to outperform girls when it comes to math, but that girls score higher than boys in reading competency.

Teachers: Stand Firm on AP US History In Oklahoma

by Nancy Kunsman

What do Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oklahoma Representative Dan Fisher (R) have in common? Absolutely nothing, except that they were both on my mind last week.

The first time I heard anything about AP US History’s near-death in Oklahoma was when the state’s education committee was preparing to vote on Fisher’s bill, which would effectively remove AP US History—a proven course—from Oklahoma high schools.

No worries, I thought, that is ludicrous. And I went about my business. In fact, I didn’t even bother mentioning it to my AP history teacher husband, because there’s no way educated officials would vote to ban a proven program.

And then I remembered—I live in Oklahoma, where our legislature considered outlawing hoodies. This might be more serious than I thought.

The second time I heard about the bill was when the committee voted to approve the bill, 11-4, straight down party lines. No wonder Oklahoma ranks 47th with a whopping D+ in Education Week’s annual rankings.

We have leaders in Oklahoma who base education decisions not on what is best for students, but on how they can support their own party’s agenda. We can’t fault Rep. Dan Fisher for following what he is expected to do in lock-step fashion, can we?

As an official member of the Black Robed Regiment, Fisher feels obligated to protect Oklahoma’s youth from ugly, negative facts. There should be enough pretty, positive facts around to fill a high school history course without adding in all the gory details, right? Why should students learn about anything that paints America in a negative light?

Ironically, while Mr. Fisher and all 15 members of the legislative committee were voting straight down party lines to ban the revised AP US History course, I was introducing my English III students to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Romantics’ belief that “Whoso would be a man would be nonconformist.” Emerson was not—could not—have been speaking about politicians who support the removal of a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and open debate.

Mr. Fisher and his fellow Republican committee members are definitely not nonconformists. They are following the lock-step formula laid out in the Republican National Committee’s Resolution Concerning Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH).

Will AP English Language and Composition be next, Mr. Fisher? I mean, why do our students need to learn to challenge authority?

Maybe Mr. Fisher thought Oklahomans—with our D+ educations—would be easily bowled over. After all, we were willing to send Common Core on its way without so much as a handshake. But what he found out is that we Okies know when to take a stand.

And today we stood up to those politicians who serve their own agendas. We stood up for our students’ right to learn about America’s history, whether ugly or nice. We stood up for our students’ ability to compete for college acceptances all across the country. We stood up for truth—clean or dirty.

Currently, Mr. Fisher is looking to reword his bill. I predict it will never again see the light of day in Oklahoma. But heed the warning: Those who tried to get a toehold in Oklahoma will try to find softer ground to plow elsewhere.

Stand firm, fellow Americans in other states. You will have your own Representative Fisher trying to get this movement started. Stand firm for your children, America’s children.

Critics complain that our education system is not as strong as others around the globe. What they should complain about is our politicians’ role in education. Let’s remind ourselves that when educational decisions are based on political agendas rather than proven academics, our children are the ones sacrificed.

This episode shows why teachers should have a place at the table when education policies are being decided. Local and state school boards should have teachers holding non-elected seats on school boards. And even at the school site level, teachers should be included in curriculum decisions. We have the experience and expertise to know what is best for our students.

Teachers, be proactive. This is a wake-up call for all of us. I have learned from this incident that I don’t want to hear about the latest education conversations on the news. I intend to pay attention to what is going on in the legislature.

When this bill passed the committee, Oklahoma teachers spoke out and went to the news media and to the communities and even to former students making them aware of this vote. And these actions led to many more people speaking out against this bill. Teachers, I don’t have to tell you how much your former students look up to you, especially concerning education matters. We continue to be their role models, even after graduation. Let’s be on alert to changes in education policy.

I encourage teachers to monitor state legislatures, contact congressmen, write blogs, write letters, send emails, and join social media groups designed to follow education legislation.

We are the ones that are really “fighting the fine fight” that Mr. Fisher claims to be embattled in.

Oklahomans—Americans—stand firm and share your voice.

KunsmanNancy Kunsman is a National Board Certified Teacher, currently in her 16th year teaching English. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

 D.C.’s Truancy Crackdown

According to The Washington Post, schools in D.C. have been crippled by a crackdown on absenteeism that labels over 56% of students as “chronically truant”. Many educators have proposed revising that law to distinguish between chronic tardiness and absenteeism.

 Colorado Tests PARCC

A pair of Colorado colleges will evaluate the use of PARCC language arts and math tests to see if they are, in fact, a valid way to predict college-readiness in students.

 Blended Learning in Rhode Island

A public charter school in Rhode Island is proving that while “blended learning” is tech-heavy, creating highly personalized learning experiences is the most important goal.

Teacher Role Models

The Economics of Education Review released a new study on whether student test scores are impacted by the race of their teachers. The verdict: low-performing black and white students apparently benefit from having teachers of the same race.

Math Can Be Fun!

An Oklahoma City high school algebra teacher has completely revamped his teaching strategy to be more fun, interactive, and full of love.

Monday, March 9, 2015

 Cuomo’s Tougher Teacher Evaluations

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling for tougher teacher evaluations that would put the state and “independent observers”–not local school districts–in charge of evaluation decisions.

 Common Core in Iowa

Iowans have a lot of pro-Common Core ads to look forward to, according to The New York Times. Common Core advocate Jeb Bush arrived in Iowa on Friday along with a full page ad in The Des Moines Register. How will politicians’ stances on Common Core affect their chances in 2016?

 Ohio Teachers Collaborative

Rural school districts in Ohio have banded together to create the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC), which has attracted more than $25 million in public and private grants and increased graduation rates by 7% while promoting teacher leadership and collaboration.

✧ Re-Imaging Teacher Leadership

Michael Lin, an engineer-turned-superintendent in California, spoke to EdWeek about a bold plan for increasing teacher leadership skills. He advises teachers to  “walk the walk” of teacher leaders, find and protect professional development resources, and, most importantly, to follow through.

 Open Education Week

Todays marks the start of Open Education Week, a campaign to raise awareness for free and open education for everyone, everywhere. Events sponsored by the Open Education Consortium will be held across the globe, including Boston and Washington State.  #openeducationwk

Friday, March 6, 2015

 New Teachers are More Prepared Than Ever

A new study in New York state says that the academic strength of new teachers has increased over 40% in the last decade. According to the report, Teach for America isn’t the only reason for improvements: careful hiring plays a key role, too.

✧ Research = Better Education

The Brookings Institution says decision makers in education must invest in more evidence and data if they want to make faster, more effective improvements to education policy. Sounds like a pretty whole-hearted endorsement of the VIVA Idea Exchange model, doesn’t it?

 A Case for Common Core

A high school principal in Florida, Jayne Ellspermann, made a compelling argument in The Washington Post this week in support of Common Core, in response to a letter from a fellow principal in New York. Ellspermann says we should all be an “advocate of college and career ready standards.”

 New Jersey’s New Teaching Standards

New details emerged this week on New Jersey’s proposed standards for new teachers, including more time spent with students, higher standards for out-of-state teachers, and mentorship and education opportunities for substitute teachers.

 Common Core is the Floor, Not the Ceiling

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation says Common Core is just the first step in what students should be mastering in school: gifted programs shouldn’t be abandoned, and putting the differentiation model into action is critical.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

 Christie: Don’t #OptOut 

At a town hall meeting yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie defended New Jersey’s new standardized exams, and asked parents not to opt out. New Jersey’s public schools began implementing Common Core-aligned PARCC tests for the first time earlier this week.

 Teach the Arts 

Urban school districts in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego are making room for more arts education, years after many art and music classes were cut in the wake of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on math and English Language Arts.

 Math Problems 

A new study by found that an overwhelming majority of math curricula across the country aren’t aligned with Common Core standards. How can we resolve implementation and alignment issues?

 Blended Learning 

Teachers in California are using “blended-learning environments” to leverage technology, individualize student instruction, and create new roles for teachers.

 Empowering Teachers 

The “Distributed Leadership” movement, which encourages school principals and district superintendents to empower teachers, is making inroads across the United States by putting teachers in charge of school functions as diverse as admissions, professional development, and new teacher mentoring.