Non-Fiction, #CommonCore, and Deep Learning

Not a day can go by without someone criticizing the Common Core State Standards or blaming the Common Core for all that ails our public education system. And while assessments are usually the prime target for Common Core haters, the standards’ emphasis on non-fiction texts have drawn greater scrutiny in recent months.

No, Eduflack isn’t going to (AGAIN) rise the defense of Common Core and all that it stands for. Instead, I’d just like to provide a terrific example of how an exemplary educator can use the expectations under Common Core, mix it with a non-fiction topic, couple it with student collaboration and teamwork, and produce a final learning experience that is a winner for all those involved.

Full disclosure here, I am completely bias. The teacher in question is my daughter’s third grade teacher. Earlier this year, she had students work in pairs to develop “marketing” brochures for each of the planets in our solar system. Students did research and identified key facts. They organized those facts to make a compelling argument. They were then asked to present their findings as if they were travel agents, trying to convince families to visit a particular planet. Bunches and bunches of Common Core standards and expectations, all wrapped up in a project-based science lesson that demanded teamwork and critical thinking.

Here’s the brochure my daughter and her partner came up with. They were tasked with marketing Uranus, and played up the terrific aspects that a cold, ice planet could offer a little kid.

This was one of the most engaging lessons I’ve seen in either of my kids’ classes in recent years. And it is a great example of how the Common Core should be taught and can be taught by a great teacher. It demonstrates that Common Core isn’t about memorizing facts or relying on worksheets or boring children into submission.

No, Common Core can be about real, deep learning. And in the hands of good teachers who are empowered to use it right, Common Core can be a wonderful guidebook for meaningful student learning.


Teacher Leaders Wanted

All students deserve highly skilled, well-prepared teachers. In order to build the teaching profession that students deserve, maximize recruitment, increase diversity, and raise the bar for quality preparation, the front end of a coherent teaching pipeline must begin in secondary education.

Make sense? Agree that the current pipelines for teacher recruitment are insufficient? Believe that we need to do a better job to show today’s high school kids that teaching should be a desired career? Then you might just believe in Educators Rising.

If you don’t agree with the above statement, or aren’t sure if you do, you need to take a closer look at the stats. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of new teachers report that they graduated from their preparation programs unprepared. One-third of teachers leave the profession in their first three years. And teacher turnover is highest — and student achievement is lowest — at schools with high levels of poverty. At the same time, projections say we will need to hire 1.5 million new teachers by 2020 (that’s almost half the teaching workforce, for those keeping count).

Dear ol’ Eduflack is proud to be a part of Educators Rising, a new initiative powered by PDK. Educators Rising offers a few simple, yet audacious goals:

  • Offer rigorous, hands-on opportunities for students to explore the teaching profession
  • Build a national, virtually connected community of rising educators
  • Offer a self-sustaining teacher development model that empowers local teacher leaders

To work toward these goals, Educators Rising is creating a standards committee to help determine what teacher preparation looks like for students in secondary school. Or more simply, what should high school kids know and be able to do if they want to be on the path of becoming effective educators?

PDK is now soliciting applications to serve on that Educators Rising Standards Committee. The application, along with additional details, can be found at: 

For those educators who want to improve the profession, for those educators who want to see more young people aspire to be teachers, for those educators who want to do something about the negative narrative surrounding teachers and teaching, Educators Rising and this committee can be a very specific answer to an important problem.

So I ask Eduflack readers to share the application with any educators you think could contribute to the discussion and the creation of meaningful standards. The only way to have strong, effective standards is to have strong, effective teachers involved.


Many, Many Thanks

I am incredibly fortunate to do work that I really enjoy. Those who have heard my story know that I fell into strategic communications by accident. I went to college thinking I would become a lawyer. Early in my postsecondary experience, I thought I’d instead be a college professor (but my college professor and college president of a father greatly discouraged it).

An internship on Capitol Hill led to my experiencing what a press secretary does. The rest is history. I never acted on the acceptance letters to law school, instead choosing to go back to Capitol Hill. I’ve spent most of the past 20 years working with not-for-profit organizations and government agencies on public engagement. Much of that time was spent in the education space.

Why this walk down memory lane? Today, PR News named me is Non-Profit/Association PR Professional of the Year. I’m incredibly moved by the award, and for being part of an impressive list of honorees who show, day in and day out, the impact meaningful communications can have on changing policy and public behavior.

I’m doubly fortunate to earn this recognition for my work with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, as we work to reinvent how higher education in general, and teacher preparation specifically, is addressed in the United States. Change can be hard. But I am incredibly lucky to be working as part of such a terrific team, all superstars in their own right.

I get that many folks don’t understand what I actually do for a living. If you ask my kids, they will tell you “daddy talks for a living.” Some hear my job title and think I’m “just a publicist.” In actuality, I am fortunate enough to work at the intersection of education research, policy, practice, politics, and communications. Each day, I get to figure out how those five pieces fit together in a way that improves teaching and learning for both the educator and the child. And I’m grateful for each of those days.

So thank you to PR News for this wonderful honor. Thank you to those who somehow determined I was the top non-profit communicator in the nation for the past calendar year. And thank you to all of those people who work in education communications, those who inspire me, who advise me, who encourage me, and who remind me why we do what we do.


Respecting the “Modern” Family

In today’s age of blended families, alternative families, and just play different families, it is hard to believe some still see the good ol’ nuclear family as the norm in the United States. It is even harder to believe that an school teacher would hold such a view.

But over at Medium, I write about how a teacher’s failure to recognize the 21st century construct of the American family can do real damage to the children in her classroom. In my latest contribution to Ashoka’s Changemakers in Education series, I write:

We worry about how testing is affecting kids today. We wring our hands over how standards or higher expectations are impacting our children. We fret over whether students are expressing enough grit or enough skills to succeed in the future. Maybe, just maybe, we should also realize that there is no one cookie cutter to define today’s kids. There is no one way to describe their abilities, their interests, learning achievements, or even their family structures or backgrounds.

Give it a read. I promise it’ll be worth it.


Immigration Lessons, Third Grade Edition

The edu-daughter is learning about immigration this month in her third-grade class. Before things even got started, we made sure she realized she was, herself, an immigrant. She arrived in this country at 13 months old from Guatemala. She was sworn in as a baby U.S. citizen in the basement of the Bush Airport in Houston.

For whatever reason, she has really taken to this focus on immigration. Over the weekend, the edu-daughter went to work on her personal white board to write up what she has learned so far about immigration. (She then asked if we could text the picture to her teacher, so she could see what she was up to.)


My first thought, after reading her notes, was that she is learning about immigration via The Godfather Part 2. There is a rising sense of pride that she sees immigration as Vito Corleone did as he arrived on our shores.

But after further reflection, I was even more proud with how she has jumped into this lesson and how she is not reflecting any of the ugliness that we see on the topic of immigration in the mainstream media these days. It would be very easy for a child, particularly a brown child, to realize that when they talk about “those people” coming into our country and us needing to send them back home, that some of those people carry the same blood and look just like she does. But she’s not seeing that.

One of these weekends, we need to make a trip to Ellis Island. I want to show her where the Finellis and the Perones on my side of the family came into the country. Sadly, the Ricciardellis didn’t come in through Lady Liberty, they arrived via Boston. But there is enough family history on Ellis Island for her to get a sense of things and better understanding of how this country came to be and on whom this country is truly built.



Gaming and the #CommonCore

As the urban legend goes, educators are provided little flexibility when it comes to teaching the Common Core State Standards. Those who don’t quite understand what the standards are assume it comes with a proscribed curriculum, one that teachers must follow to the very letter.

But in classrooms across the country, we see educators empowered with the flexibility to do what makes sense in teaching the Common Core to their students. With learning as the ultimate goal, how one gets there isn’t as important as the final destination.

On Common Core Radio this week, LFA’s Cheryl Scott Williams and I speak with Rebecca Rufo-Tepper of the Institute of Play. In this segment, Dr. Rufo-Tepper discusses how educators are using gaming to help students learn the key tenets of Common Core, and do so successfully.

It’s definitely worth the listen. We are seeing more and more how gaming can be a tremendously effective tool in 21st century teaching. Using it to relay Common Core lessons to students is no different.




Teaching True Meaning of First Amendment Rights

For weeks, Eduflack has been biting his tongue on the rash of intolerance offered in the name of tolerance on our college campuses. Too many stories of free speech being squashed in the name of “safe zones,” too many instances of aspiring “activists” believing Constitutional rights only apply to those individuals and causes that one completely agrees with.

Over at Medium this week, I wrote about our desperate need for today’s college students to truly understand the rights that they claim to embrace. Quoting everything from the First Amendment to President Andy Shepherd’s monologue from the movie, The American President, I just had my “I’m mad as hell” moment.

As I wrote:

But a funny thing happened between a generation known for its passionate advocacy for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War and now. Today, too many see those freedoms and speech and assembly with self-inflicted blinders, believing such rights are meant to apply only to those who agree with us.

As originally conceived, the First Amendment was written to ensure a protected place for reasoned dissent in our new nation. Today, it is used as a weapon to protect against disagreement or opposing viewpoints and silence those who may see things differently.

When, exactly, did we allow the First Amendment to be bastardized to prevent civil discourse and public debate? When, exactly, did we determine it was OK to defend free speech, but only if it was speech we agreed with?

I know it is Thanksgiving week and all, but give it a read. We should all be thankful for our rights, whether we are red, blue, or purple with sparkly pink polka dots.

Excellent Teachers, Equitable Distribution, Real Results

Last week, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter had an interesting commentary looking at whether educators are really the ones who should be tasked with fixing all that ails our society. In tackling the discussion of whether American students are really lagging or whether, when we adjust for all sorts of outside factors, they are doing just fine, Porter concludes by noting, “Teachers are paid poorly, compared to those working in other occupations. And the best of them are not deployed to the most challenging schools.”

That last point, one of how we get our best teachers in front of the classrooms and the kids who need them the most, is one of the most pressing issues facing public education today. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education requested a report from each of the state departments of education, explaining how they were addressing the equitable distribution of effective teachers. But those reports still doing get exemplary teachers where they are most needed.

In response to Porter’s piece, Stephanie Hull, EVP and COO of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, offered some valuable insights. On the pages of the NYT, Dr. Hull wrote:

Getting excellent teachers into all classrooms is a national imperative. To meet this challenge, we must also improve teacher education, producing more and better prepared teachers, especially in shortage areas like STEM and special education. This is the only way to ensure a strong pipeline of teachers who know how to meet the needs of all students.

In states like Georgia, Indiana and New Jersey, we are seeing how programs specifically intended to recruit, prepare and support exemplary teachers for high-need classrooms can have a positive effect on the community and on the student.

She knows of what she writes. The work she mentions in places like GA, IN, and NJ is exactly what she is doing through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. And when you find a way to recruit, prepare, and support exemplary beginning educators to teach STEM in high-need schools, and you get those teachers to stay in those schools and classrooms well beyond their obligations, you must be doing something right.

Is Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship THE answer to the equity problem? Of course not. There is no one way to solve the issue or to improve access to great teachers for all kids. But programs like WWTF are definitely a part of the solution. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to helping that program, and others like it to succeed. Instead of just talking about what it can do or making promises of what is possible, programs like Teaching Fellowship are actually building pipelines of STEM teachers committed to careers in the schools that need them the most. How novel …

Breaking News: Principals Can, Do Make #CommonCore Work

In what Eduflack is sure is a huge surprise to many, the Common Core can actually be implemented effectively. And it can be done in schools, with strong principal leadership and respect for and involvement of teachers. This isn’t just an urban legend, we are actually seeing it.

Case in point, Florida’s West Port High School and the efforts of Jayne Ellspermann and the entire staff at the school. On our most recent edition of Common Core Radio over at BAM, the Learning First Alliance’s Cheryl Williams and I talk to Ellspermann about her experiences and what good implementation looks like in her school.

Give it a listen. You might be surprised to hear that Common Core implementation doesn’t have to be contentious or anti-teacher or the sixth horseman of the apocalypse. In fact, it can be a huge benefit for kids and educators alike.

“Determination and Savvy”

Shameless self-promotion alert. Over at Bulldog Reporter, they have a terrific article (at least the edu-mom and edu-daughter would say it is terrific) about my ongoing work at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Bulldog Reporter recently recognizing our communications efforts at Woodrow Wilson on the issue of teacher education.

To be honest, and many won’t believe this, but such write-ups make me uncomfortable (though i’ll admit, I don’t mind being seen as determined and savvy, certainly better than the alternative). It often doesn’t reflect the full team effort that goes into play, and it can too often make the story about the individual, and not the work itself. But I do like how they boiled down some of my blather to a few key lessons for those in the communications sector:

“First, the most successful messaging focuses on the positive and meaningful change,” he says. “Negativity and attacks may sell, but they have a short shelf life. Second, nothing is more powerful than personalizing the story and showing how scary change impacts the individual. Third, don’t be afraid to fail. Particularly when you are starting with a blank canvas, try it all, quickly jettison what isn’t working, and focus on what is most successful.”

When I say it, can I then add a “well said?”