My “It” Moment at VIVA Teachers

By Charlene Mendoza
VIVA Arizona Teachers Idea Exchange

As teachers, we know that moment when “it” happens. That moment when we know the bait was taken, the interest engaged, the inquiry begun or the spark ignited. That moment when the energy begins to flow and the classroom transforms into an active, engaging learning environment. For me, that describes my experience participating in the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

When I first saw the invitation to participate, I was mildly interested. As a teacher, my inbox is flooded with messages that appear to be similar in nature. Check this out! Buy this resource! Tell us what you think! Stop this! Start that! I am accustomed to being asked for a “teacher’s perspective” which often seems to give credence to another initiative or plan which typically does not really represent what I said, wrote, feel or believe. It is more like a celebrity endorsement…I talked to a “real teacher” and so my (fill in the blank here) is valid. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Joining the Idea Exchange Conversation

I participated in an Idea Exchange about implementing the Common Core Standards in Arizona. As the topic was relevant to me, I logged on. At first, there were not a ton of responses, so, I decided to make a post that was relatively benign. Then, I began to get notices of responses to my post, questions from other teachers, ideas from other teachers, challenges from other teachers and suggestions of resources from other teachers.

I began to read other posts and respond to them. I was hooked! I had discovered a forum where a group of interested, articulate teaching professionals were engaged in a collaborative, collegial, constructive, critical conversation on my own schedule!

Although I was intrigued, I did not recognize at the time how valuable that experience was and still is. I continue to be enriched by the experience. Too often, talk in education devolves to complaints about what is being forced upon us or why whatever “it” is really is not much different than whatever “it” was before.

Rediscovering My Voice

By participating in the Idea Exchange, I rediscovered my voice and reignited my passion and found a place to use both.

This certainly does not mean that we all agreed about everything or even that we all became lifelong friends or anything like that. What it does mean, though, is that participating in the Idea Exchange connected me to others who were willing to be interested and engaged in real life conversations that pushed my thinking, sparked my interest and helped me to work more effectively with my students and colleagues.

I hope you accept the invitation to participate in the VIVA New Jersey Charter Teachers Idea Exchange! The experience is more than worth it.


Witnessing the Start of Something Truly Great

By Tina Nolan, Ed.D.
Moderator, New Jersey VIVA Idea Exchange

Last fall, I had the pleasure of being the research partner for the first ever VIVA Idea Exchange in Chicago. I was privileged to witness more than 600 Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers share their thoughts on how to redesign the school day, week and year. Their ideas stemmed from their own practice in the classroom. Rooted in real schools, in real classrooms, with real students, these teachers were the experts about how best to use time for learning.

Arming the teachers with research summaries based on their ideas, I was proud to support teachers as they informed policy decisions coming from the CPS central office. Out of that work came a report called, “Time, Teachers, and Tomorrow’s Schools.” Many of the recommendations provided in their report were adopted by the CPS administration. And I believe that students will be the biggest beneficiaries of this work because this group of teachers stepped up to say what they believed.

But I witnessed something else, too. The Chicago VIVA project created a community of teaching professionals who are still connected even though their work on the VIVA project is complete. Some have left the district, and some have moved into different positions within the district, but the group is still connected and supporting one another in the complex art of teaching.

Giving Teachers a Powerful and Collective Voice

The VIVA project in Chicago gave teachers a powerful and collective voice. It provided them an opportunity to speak directly to the Mayor of Chicago, the CEO of CPS Schools, and the President of the Chicago Teachers Union. The VIVA project provided a space for teachers to shine as the experts and leaders that they are.

*Chicago VIVA Project Teachers present their recommendations to CPS CEO Jean Claude Brizard

The New Jersey VIVA Teachers Project: Powerful Online Collaboration

Through the VIVA project I have witnessed the power of online collaboration around important issues, and I am excited about the work ahead with the New Jersey Charter School Association and its membership. As the moderator for this project, my aim is to connect you and your ideas together as you articulate what successful character education looks like in your settings. Defining success in your own terms, based on your classroom experience, and rooted in the latest research on the subject makes for powerful and impactful decision-making in schools.


The Complex Alchemy of Helping Students Learn

When I first started working on K-12 policy, about 10 years ago in the charter school movement, my favorite activity was visiting schools.  As a non-educator, I found it intimidating yet exhilarating to go into a school building and see what was going on.  Making a school hum is such a complex task and I loved the way the school administrators and teachers would break it down for me.

Empty classroom photo from Wiki CommonsI still don’t pretend to be an expert on the complex alchemy of teaching students. But now when I walk into a school, I pretty quickly get an idea of what I am going to find.

There are schools that have the culture of scholarship lurking in every corner of the building. It’s clear that students “get” the reason they are there.  In other schools, that energy and focus is found inside classrooms but not in the halls, cafeteria or other common spaces.  Same goes for the administrative space—some just give a visitor a 110% vibe of love of learning and clarity of purpose.  Others are well run, efficient but lack that zing.

Rarely have I visited a school in real crisis or chaos (they don’t let outsiders into those buildings, do they?)  so I’m not suggesting that any of the schools I visit are that painful 5% of truly awful schools.  But, what makes the difference between a school that soars and a school that plugs along?

Believing in the Wisdom of Teachers

I launched VIVA Teachers because I know the answer to these questions lies in the wisdom and work of classroom teachers.  It’s the sum of each teacher’s work in each class they teach that adds up to a school.  And somewhere between the syllabus for each class, the mix of classes a student takes, and the instruction that happens in every room every day is the DNA of how that school grabs its students and helps them tackle the work of scholarship.

But, students bring a lot to the table too.  Without a doubt their homes, their neighborhoods and their family resources are a big part of what they bring. There’s something else too—their spirit, their perspective, their yearnings, their ability to see long and short term, to sit down, to wrestle with a problem or an issue until they “get it.”

How do you describe this set of traits in students? How do you measure their use of those skills and “social intelligence” in the work of being in school and learning? It’s a topic that fascinates me and is increasingly grabbing academic attention and the headlines.

VIVA NJ Charter Teachers Idea Exchange

I’m so proud that VIVA Teachers is partnering with The New Jersey Charter Schools Association to give New Jersey charter school teachers a chance to explore these questions and bring their hard-earned experience from their classrooms to the fore via the VIVA NJ Charter Teachers Idea Exchange, which launches Sept. 17.

I can’t wait to hear what these committed teachers say and how they think we can translate those truths into a better understanding of what makes a school succeed.  I’m especially excited that we have the nation’s foremost researchers from The University of Pennsylvania in on the discussion.  Talk about bringing research into your classroom work!

Thank you for taking up the important work of educating New Jersey’s children and thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us so we can make sure every single child in NJ has a truly equal opportunity to learn.

VIVA Arizona Teacher leaders in the News

From Arizona Sun’s Classroom Daily Briefs

Heritage Elementary School’s Williams campus principal Kaytie Thies was among a select group of charter school teachers chosen to present an action plan for implementing new Common Core Standards for education to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Arizona State Board of Education President Jaime Molera.

The action plan is based on a collection of ideas submitted by nearly 200 Arizona teachers during Phase I of the three-part VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

The exchange is a collaboration between the Arizona Charter Schools Association and the online teacher’s forum The VIVA Project (VIVA stands for Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action). Its goal is to help Arizona charter school teachers collaborate on the new Common Core Standards, a state-led effort to establish shared academic standards in K-12 English/language arts and mathematics.

Thies and six other teachers who participated in Phase I were invited to continue on to Phase II and III of the program. During Phase II, they summarized and synthesized the ideas presented during Phase I into 36 distinct, workable recommendations for implementing Common Core Standards in a way most likely to result in improved student learning.

Phase III took place on June 13, when Thies and the others presented the action plan in a meeting with Huppenthal and Molera.

Click here to read more

VIVA Arizona Project – Arizona Charter Teachers’ Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice From the Classroom

On Wednesday, June 13, members of the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange Writing Collaborative delivered their report, Arizona Charter Teachers Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice from the Classroom, to Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal and State Board President Jaime Molera.

Teachers are significant stakeholders in the implementation of Common Core Standards and should be key players in the process. These recommendations will foster the environment necessary to ensure successful implementation of Common Core Standards, promote the development of professional knowledge and expertise of teachers, and maintain high expectations and academic achievement on the part of Arizona’s students.

Download the full report as a PDF

Click here to read the executive summary and recommendations

VIVA Arizona Press Release

Contact: Megan Gilbertson
O: 602.944.0644 ext. 312
C:  602.688.9435


Charter Teachers Share Thoughts on Implementing New Standards

Arizona teachers need more training, parents need a heads up


VIVA Arizona Press Release

Download as a PDF

Phoenix, Ariz. (June 8, 2012) – In order to ensure a successful transition to new, more rigorous K-12 curriculum standards, Arizona must provide additional training and tools to educators, launch a public awareness campaign about the new student achievement standards, and ease the transition to new tests, according to a report prepared by Arizona charter school teachers.

In a first of its kind online collaboration in Arizona, nearly 200 charter teachers across the state spent four weeks exchanging ideas about what teachers and schools need to ensure a successful transition to the Common Core State Standards, the new mandated standards all public schools — district and charter — must meet beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.

A group of seven teachers from the initial phase of the VIVA Idea Exchange worked to summarize and synthesize the ideas, and developed a report with 36 specific action steps for Arizona to use when implementing the Common Core State Standards. The teachers will present their ideas to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Arizona State Board of Education President Jaime Molera on June 13.

“Our teachers want to see their students succeed, and this report provides policy makers an in-depth look at what all public schools need to make the transition to the new standards successful,” said Association President Eileen B. Sigmund. “Although charter teachers are innovative and creative, they face the same challenges as all public school teachers are facing in Arizona and across the country.”

The Arizona Charter Schools Association partnered with New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Teachers Project to engage Arizona charter schools teachers in an effective conversation about the new standards.

Find out more about the project and Common Core State Standards at Please contact Megan Gilbertson for a copy of the embargoed report.


About The Arizona Charter Schools Association

The Arizona Charter Schools Association is a non-profit membership and professional organization that serves more than 80 percent of the 524 charter schools in Arizona that enroll 133,890 students. Fully 25 percent of the state’s public schools are charter schools, and 12 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in charter schools—the highest percentage for any state, and second only to Washington D.C. With a common goal of providing the best in free, public education for Arizona’s children, the Association works alongside schools, parents, policymakers and the media, continuously advocating for high quality schools, student equity, and charter school autonomy. We are dedicated to high student achievement and aggressively seek to provide the best in comprehensive support and services to Arizona’s charter schools. For more information, visit or call 602.944.0644.

About VIVA Teachers

VIVA Teachers (VIVA stands for Voice, Ideas, Vision, Action) uses an innovative online platform to empower them to share their professional wisdom with each other and connects them directly to the people who have the power to enact change. Already, VIVA Teachers have submitted their recommendations for change to government officials in Washington, D.C. Chicago IL, Albany NY, and St. Paul MN. For more information on how VIVA elevates the voices of teachers, from the front lines to the bottom line, visit

Teacher Talk: The Good, the Bad and the Charter (Episode 1)

Kori Milroy interviewing Rachel Douglas SwansonVIVA Teacher Leader Kori Milroy, host of Teacher Talk, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of charter schools with Rachel Douglas Swanson who teaches at LEARN Charter School in Chicago. Download the 30-minute podcast to listen in on a fascinating conversation about the misconceptions and challenges charters face. Learn about the differences between teaching at a charter and a traditional public school. Hear how Swanson felt when she got her first raise based on her performance. And get jealous when she talks about getting the things she needs to be an effective teacher.

This is the first installment of Teacher Talk, an ongoing series of conversations between teachers talking about education policy.

Download the episode here or stream it below.