I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.
How many times have you already looked at your phone today? You might’ve sent a few texts. Maybe you opened some emails. Perhaps you shared a document, or viewed a presentation. It's easy to forget that just over ten years ago, none of these actions were simple or ubiquitous -- the iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007, and most devices in the office (or classroom) were tethered to a desk, as the “cloud” had yet to take shape.
texts a day sent on average (Source: Text Request)
hours a day spent on smartphones (Source: Hackernoon)
To understand why the time is right for school systems to adopt their own “operating system,” let’s explore how technology has evolved over the past thirty years across six major waves.
Wave 1: The Closed OS
When people hear “operating system” they might think back to the early days of educational technology, when the ecosystems were closed; back then, you were either a loyal Microsoft or Apple user, and those were pretty much your only options. As classrooms only had one option or the other, the computers subsequently ran Windows or MacOS. It was a binary landscape, to say the least. As a result, Apple and Microsoft dominated the education market for years. During this time, most schools used on-premise servers to store all of their data (many still do). But this created numerous issues, including but not limited to limited collaboration, restricted mobility, and increased security risks. This lasted from the 1980s through the early 2000s. However, something called “the cloud” was brewing in the sky.
Wave 2:The Early Days of the Cloud
In 2004, something outrageous happened: you no longer needed to store emails in a local server. This was thanks to the release of "Gmail" by Google, a relatively new company then. One year later, Google purchased a company called Writely, which would ultimately become what is now known as Google Docs. With the ability to create and share content, Google secured a place to store it all in 2007. Originally called Platypus, this would later be known globally as Google Drive. These three pieces were built on the belief that the future was about the cloud -- the ability to access anything, from anywhere, on any device -- and it had a tremendous effect on the way education systems operated, from the classroom to the district.
Wave 3: Enter Devices
The cloud was a disruptive force, but it wasn't easily accessible, as laptops and computers were still rather expensive. While the original 2007 iPhone changed the game for what one could do on a phone, it was challenging to be productive, no matter how “smart” the device was. It wasn't until 2012 that Google began to develop the first Chromebook, which caused the first major shakeup to the laptop ecosystem in years. Meanwhile, Apple stuck to their guns on a premium price point for Macs and iPads. During this time, Microsoft often stressed how much students needed to learn how to use Office, since that is what they would use in the “real world”. In the end, they were both impacted by an evolving market. Chromebooks delivered 90% of the functionality at a fraction of the cost, and by 2014, schools began to purchase them in bulk. Over the last four years, both Microsoft and Apple started to change their education model. Google’s lower price point for school devices significantly drove prices down and made them affordable to nearly everyone. This gave more and more school systems the opportunity to consider how technology might transform learning experiences with the goal of providing greater equity and accessibility. When any technology becomes a commodity, the end user wins.
Wave 4: Workflows
Years later the foundation Google has established paved the way for Google Apps for Education (now G-Suite). In the process, they effectively solved a major interoperability challenge: the offering was completely free, which challenged other players in the edtech space. While Microsoft and Apple ignored this paradigm shift for years, they were forced to evolve or be forgotten in the K-12 space. Office 365 was eventually launched, and although it was “free,” schools still needed to license Office, which was expensive. Apple's iCloud simply never gained the traction it needed and as a result, Google continued to flourish and eat up more of the K-12 market share.
The one major challenge still facing Google was that the combination of GAFE and Drive together offered a clunky experience. This is likely because they were developed and housed in different parts of Google. They didn’t “talk” to each other well -- a problem that often persists even with today's apps. Teachers needed to ask their students to create an assignment in Docs, download a copy of that to a local folder on their desktop, upload it to Drive, and finally, move it to the teacher’s folder. That's a lot of steps to take for every single assignment, not to mention, a lot of room for error.
While Microsoft and Apple were consumed with their device strategy, Google was solving this workflow problem. The answer soon arrived via Google Classroom: a way to enable Drive and GAFE to “talk” to each other directly. Classroom condensed those four steps into one seamless action and worked across all devices and operating systems. This simple solution simultaneously saved teachers time and helped us move towards classroom interoperability.
Microsoft has tried to launch their own version of Classroom, as has Apple, but both are inferior (and quite frankly, late-to-the-game) offerings. This is where the evolution and innovation of the LMS really hit a wall. The key advantage Canvas had, as it began to steal market share from the incumbent, Blackboard, was simply that they built a pure-SaaS product first and foremost. Blackboard got too comfortable and believed their loyal customer base would never leave.
Keep in mind as well that Classroom was never meant to be an LMS, or provide visibility for admins into the classroom.It was created to enable teachers to operate their classrooms more effectively. While this workflow was a huge value-add over the last four years, not much has happened since for K12, leaving the door open for new players.
Wave 5: Cross-Platform Applications
The next interoperability challenge was how to enable the various apps to run on any device in order to reduce the friction in schools who just wanted to teach and learn, and not worry about which device enabled it. For those who remember what happened with LAUSD in 2014, when content and curriculum cannot be accessed and used easily, technology fails. In the past few years, we can now operate Windows apps, like Powerpoint, Notes, et cetera, on a Chromebook or Android device. We can operate Android apps on Chromebooks, and we can even use Dropbox with Google or Microsoft as people seek their own custom, best-in-breed solution. We have now seen this convergence of enabling all types of applications to run across any device and OS. The focus on applications reduced the amount of friction for the end user, who just wants to access the content and does not care which OS or device they are using. It should just work.
Wave 6: Data Unification
The most important question for us today is, how does the data living across different applications speak to one another? Andhow do we make that data useful and meaningful for end-users of education technology? Schools can continue to work towards “personalization,” but the reality is that developing a holistic profile for every student across applications will be an absolute necessity to support individualized instruction. If classrooms are utilizing a learning management system, most of the achievement data will probably be with Google, Microsoft, or Schoology, to name a few. But regardless of any LMS’s collaboration features, their tools do not offer the ability to aggregate achievement data across applications for schools to make informed decisions about curriculum and instruction or resource allocation. As a result, the data necessary to make timely decisions and improve student outcomes currently lives scattered among a plethora of learning apps that don't “speak” to one another. And this is where Kiddom comes in. We approached the challenge by building for interoperability from the start. We considered all of the major stakeholders in the K-12 environment when we designed our analytics. Because Kiddom connects the dots between curriculum, instruction, and assessment, we effectively streamline the workflow necessary for educators and administrators to build student-centered instructional models.
Kiddom picks up where the LMS leaves off, offering an operating system for K-12 schools and districts to measure and act on classroom intelligence. We define a K-12 operating system as a set of interconnected tools to enable schools to operate more productively, increase student outcomes, and improve upon their respective instructional models. If you're ready to see what the next wave of education technology can do for your school or district, let's talk. As a former “Googler” who led the Chromebook initiative into schools and districts, I’d be happy to connect with you and your colleagues to address any challenges, fears, or questions you have about our incredibly useful tool for K12 education.
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Nearly ten years ago, I started my career in education as a math teacher at a new alternative high school serving over-age, under-credited youth in New York City. My students were labeled “at-risk” of dropping out because they were 16–21 years old and previously unsuccessful in high school. Many suffered from chronic absenteeism, caused by factors such as homelessness, family responsibilities, and/or incarceration. If we, the educators, were going to serve our students well, we were going to have to get pedagogically creative.
One of the first curricular tools I built to share — on the first day of school — was a public, student-friendly gradebook on Google Sheets. (Yes, this was before Google Classroom existed!) Students could track their progress and identify which skills needed extra work at any time. Little did I know this experience would eventually propel me to help develop a school operating system that tackles technology issues plaguing educators and supports them with more opportunities to offer individualized instruction.
Creating a Toolbox — and Filling It
After creating the gradebook, my colleague and I developed a curriculum aligned to New York state math standards. We scoped and sequenced the curriculum according to a set of power standards representing scaffolded skills. If students mastered a power standard, they could move on and didn’t need to wait for others. This competency-based system made sense; if students were chronically absent, holding them accountable to a pacing calendar would prove futile.
To supplement in-person support offered during class and lunch periods, I published a simple Google site to house my lessons, assessments, and other resources. If students missed class or needed additional help, they could go to my website and access the day’s lesson as well as videos and digital exercises from YouTube and Khan Academy.
As my students submitted work, I tracked everything in my gradebook. My goal was to minimize the information asymmetry that tends to exist between what teachers know about their students and what students know about their performance. At the time, I had no idea this system was called “standards-based grading.” I was so green at this point in my career that I probably assumed every classroom in the 21st century operated this way. I didn’t realize what we were trying to build was innovative.
The following year, I wanted to ensure that when students did come to class, they could participate and engage — or at the very minimum — access the content via a class set of iPads. I stepped up my game by adding even more videos and assessment exercises to my class website, mining resources from IXL and CK-12. I generated logins for my students and started “blending” instruction using the free content from these publishers. This worked nicely for my students, who felt like I was carefully attending to their learning pace and providing them with targeted learning materials.
By the end of year, more than half of my students passed the Algebra 1 state exam. For context: in years prior, every one of these students had failed this exam at least once. Of those who failed again this time around, many had never come so close to passing and looked forward to retaking it in the summer.
Enter the LMS
I was proud, but also exhausted. The time required to maintain the number of tools I was juggling was eerily close to the time I used to spend working as an investment banker. I dedicated hours every week copy-pasting student achievement data from multiple systems into one gradebook, analyzing each student’s progress and assigning work based on need. The last thing I needed was another system to maintain, but that’s exactly how my third teaching year started: my school administration decided a centralized system for grades was necessary to assess how all classrooms were doing. They bought a learning management system (LMS) and asked us to start using it.
Procuring the LMS was purely an administrative decision, fueled by a desire to monitor school-wide trends to make resource allocation decisions. I couldn’t fault school leadership for this, but I still hated using it. I didn’t want to change the way I’d set up my class because my model working for my students. Now, in addition to importing data from IXL, Khan Academy, and an adaptive learning program called Carnegie Learning, I had to transfer the achievement data from my gradebook into another system. It felt like every tool I used in the classroom was inherently designed to work in isolation.
By the end of that year, my patience had grown thin. I stopped updating the LMS on a regular basis and wondered how long it would take before somebody noticed. My colleagues had mixed feelings about it too. Because the LMS was designed to contain a lot of tools for teachers in a single view, it was clunky and cumbersome to use. For example, it didn’t integrate with Google Apps, which we had spent the last three years using. Nor could I customize features to align with my class set-up, or remove certain features altogether.
Building and Brainstorming
After three more years teaching in alternative high schools, I left the classroom to join Kiddom and address this interoperability problem. In an ideal world, teachers would be able to access a set of tools driven by their classroom needs and aligned to an instructional model of their choice. Administrators would be able to measure and take action from macro-level trends, manage and review curriculum, and enable educators to incorporate the instructional models and technologies that serve their classrooms best.
Unfortunately, teachers are constrained by tools that are ineffective or redundant. Many education technologies are not interoperable. School and district leaders continue to spend an inordinate amount of time piecing together data to understand what’s really happening. When that takes too long or doesn’t work, they resort to classroom observations — because they’re easy to do.
During my time at Kiddom, I’ve had the opportunity to apply my teaching experience and work with a team of designers and developers to tackle these problems head-on. At first, we focused on teachers and learners and the tools needed to enhance a singular classroom experience; this led to a simple, visual standards-aligned gradebook. Next, we connected this gradebook directly to digital content publishers like CK-12 and Khan Academy so that teachers could access teaching resources in order to differentiate instruction efficiently and save time.
Because every classroom experience plays a role in the larger ecosystem within a school, we designed a set of collaboration tools to help teachers work together, share, and learn from each other more effectively. We then focused on the information asymmetry that exists between classrooms and their respective administrative bodies. Working with and listening closely to public school administrators, we brainstormed various ways we could support school systems from the top-down and bottom-up.
A K-12 School Operating System
The result of this work is Kiddom Academy, a K-12 school operating system supporting collaboration and individualized instruction. Using Academy, administrators can identify and act on aggregate achievement trends, manage curriculum and assessment, and efficiently integrate other tools they’ve come to rely on. They can set up frameworks for a range of pedagogies in line with their organizational goals. Classrooms gain access to a comprehensive library of standards-aligned resources and curriculum development tools. Beautiful, actionable reports help students, teachers, parents, and administrators monitor progress and take action.
Kiddom Academy, our K-12 school operating system for schools and districts
A K-12 school operating system is the next step in the evolution of education technology. Interoperability matters in schools and districts now more than it has ever before, because we’ve come expect it everywhere else. For example, I can purchase a pair of concert tickets using my EventBrite app, and then export the information directly into my iPhone calendar. So too should teachers be able to use a variety of learning apps in their classroom and expect them to work together seamlessly. As we see more content and pedagogy-specific tools in the market, we can expect increasing numbers of teachers to find and patch together the tools that work best for them; administrators will be no different.
My teaching experience helped me understand that I didn’t need to buy a blended learning or personalized learning product. I had a process and practice in place, and needed a set of interoperable tools. I can’t imagine how much more passion and creative energy I might have offered my students and colleagues if I wasn’t staying up late every night copying and pasting data to differentiate instruction. “Personalized learning” might be trendy, but it isn’t new. Teachers have been trying to enhance and individualize learning using the tools at their disposal for a long time.
That’s why at Kiddom, we’re hell bent on designing and implementing technology that enables all students to learn via pedagogy and pacing optimized for them. We’re betting big on the idea of building a system for other learning apps to run on — rather than in — to help schools plug and play the tools they find most effective. We can’t wait to see how schools will use Kiddom Academy to execute their vision for teaching and learning.
Today, we released a redesigned student experience on Kiddom to help 21st century learners access and submit work, track their own progress, and solicit feedback from teachers in real-time, from one place.
Over the past century, education technology has often left students out of the equation. That’s unfortunate, because students today move fast and are incredibly tech-savvy. At Kiddom, we believe students shouldn’t have to wait until progress reports are printed to learn where they stand in class or on specific skills. Students shouldn’t have to wait to see their teachers in person to pose clarifying questions or solicit feedback on an assignment. And from what we’ve gathered, teachers are constantly looking for ways to empower students to take control of their learning. With our redesigned student experience, the possibilities of student ownership are endless.
Timeline — Everything in One Place
When students login and click into their class, they’ll be greeted by their Timeline. Timeline allows students to view assignments (past, present, and upcoming) from one place. This not only includes teacher-created assignments, but also all the Khan Academy videos, CK-12 exercises, CommonLit readings, and other resources their teacher might’ve assigned for differentiation purposes via Kiddom’s Library of resources.
Submitting Work and Soliciting Feedback Made Easy
When students click on an assignment from their Timeline, they’ll be able to see any instructions or attachments their teacher may have included, as well as the standards or skills has appended to the assignment. Students may upload and submit their own work and also engage in a discussion with their teacher regarding the assignment.
Reports — Monitor Progress and Self-Advocate
When students can actively monitor their progress in class, they’re more likely to advocate for themselves. With our redesigned Reports, students can track their overall class progress, as well as progress on individual standards and skills — all in real-time. This means they finally have the data they need, when they need it.
We’re Just Getting Started
The new student experience has been long overdue. And while we’re incredibly excited about the positive impact it will make in classrooms around the world, there’s still a lot more work to be done. Over the next several months and into the next school year, we’re going to focus on adding community features to accelerate our vision of building a collaborative education platform. In the meantime, let us know what you think of the new student experience with a comment or chat with us directly using the in-app chat tool. Happy teaching and learning!
Editor’s note: We’re still testing the new Kiddom student experience. If your students signed up before Friday, April 21, 2017, they may not experience the new Kiddom just yet. We plan to conclude testing on Friday, April 28, 2017, at which time all students will be on the redesigned student experience. For more information, contact our support team.
I have been working in schools for eight years as a teacher, department lead, and instructional coach. I am by no means a veteran of the field. Despite this, by and large, I have been left alone to independently seek resources to improve my practice or received coaching that was ineffective and misaligned to the realities of my classroom.
I’ve always felt this disconnect, but it hit me even more concretely this week in a professional development session for instructional coaches. We were asked to describe the best mentor we’ve had as educators — what were the qualities that allowed us to learn from them, the structures they used to teach us, and the lessons we learned from them? As I scanned my memories of the last eight years, the officially assigned coaches or mentors did not come immediately to mind. Instead, it has been peers, books, online forums, and my students that filled my head with lessons and pushed me to improve.
As I reflected more deeply, going year by year, I realized how much of my lack of professional development stemmed from greater issues in public education: lack of financial resources, inexperienced teachers and administrators trained by alternative certification programs, high staff turnover and burnout, and the heavy focus on standardized tests.
In my first year teaching, I was assigned a mandatory mentor to meet with biweekly. She rarely observed my classes or asked for lesson plans as a source of data to develop my personalized goals; she usually asked me how I was feeling about my own practice. Much like a doctor asking a patient to diagnose themselves, she left it to me, a twenty-one year old novice, to pick a focus area for my learning. I gave the answers that “felt” right, but I was never confident I was seeking the right resources. Most of our sessions focused on classroom management, but since she hadn’t seen my students’ behavior or my delivery, her feedback consisted of things I had already found in books like The First Days of School or Teach like a Champion: stand at the door and greet students, circulate around the room a lot, don’t put your back to the class while writing on the board, etc. It was disconnected from what was actually going on in my classroom and my planning, and it flat out didn’t work to make me better or help my students. I usually left those sessions feeling more exhausted and confused than before we met. I want to go back and coach myself like Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghost of PD future. “Stop focusing on behavior. Look at your lesson plans. Script your questions ahead of time. Pick more engaging content. Get to know the kids better. Really listen to what they’re saying in class.”
In my second year, it was assumed by administration that as I had survived my first year, I was competent enough to be left alone. The principal (who had taught for only four years before being fast tracked into administration through the Leadership Academy) came once mid-year, observed for fifteen minutes, and left. We never had a post-observation meeting. At the end of the year, I was asked to sign off on five “Satisfactory” observations for my file towards tenure. I survived that year, and learned via trial by fire. I came out feeling grizzled, and wondered if teaching was for me. I had no idea if I was doing a good job, and though I had strong relationships with my students and their academic results seemed solid, I felt unmoored in my career. I thought about leaving teaching, but stayed because I loved my students and the community I worked in.
Fortunately, in my third year, a group of veterans formed an informal peer observation group. The plan was to pick a partner, observe them every other week, then meet in the off-weeks to debrief and give suggestions and discuss. This was the most important group I have ever been a part of professionally. Throughout the year, I was paired with teachers across grade level and content area with varying levels of experience and teaching styles. Through spending time in their classrooms, I learned an infinite number of lessons — everything from how to use the physical space in my classroom more creatively to how to infuse engaging multimedia into the most mundane lessons. I am eternally grateful to the teachers who voluntarily gave up lunch breaks to meet with me, who welcomed me into their classrooms, and allowed me to question their methods with a generosity of spirit that made me the educator I am today. Their lesson plans, their teacher voices, and their passion for the true work of teaching lives in every class I have ever taught or PD session I have led.
After my third year, I moved to a brand new school as a founding team member. The school had not been planned well from its inception, and amidst the chaos of figuring out new systems for everything from collecting attendance to choosing curriculum, our administration had less than zero time for coaching. The only instances that an observer ever came to my class were reactive, in both negative and positive ways. If there were conflicts between certain students, a visitor might come for a little bit and stay in the room, but the focus was never on instruction, only physical and emotional safety. Conversely, I would frequently invite the whole school community into my class to see presentations, debates, or readers’ theater my students were sharing to celebrate success. Rarely did anyone, especially from administration, take me up on my offer. I was so disappointed I couldn’t foster the same “open-door” policy among the new staff that had become so important to me at my old school. Once or twice, the principal popped in and complimented my classroom management, but the content or structure of my lessons was not a point of discussion. Still, I could only judge from my students’ reflections and my own research that I was learning to become a better teacher. Again, I didn’t receive any formal feedback for an entire school year.
Finally, the following year, I got a coach. She was an experienced, passionate, and purposeful educator who asked me early in the year, “What do you want to work on? What should I look for when I observe?” She came to my class, stayed for entire periods, took detailed notes, and videotaped my lessons. This Cinderella with a ragged unit plan got a fairy godmother full of probing questions and content knowledge. She let me drive my goals — I wanted to learn how to question better, how to flip my classroom so I could be a facilitator and my students would be accountable for accessing the knowledge they sought. This coach pushed me to consider how to increase the number of minutes students were speaking to each other in class, and we researched techniques and strategies together. We watched taped footage of my class together, attended external PD workshops together, and re-wrote curriculum together. I had never felt more effective or energized; I knew my decisions in planning were grounded in evidence-based strategies, my students were performing at extremely high levels in both standardized tests and project-based assessments. I was able to use the innovation and pilot strategies we had come up with to teach others in my department. It was exactly the teaching utopia I had dreamed of. And then, because of nasty political decision-making at the administrative level, my fairy godmother left to work at another school. I was devastated, but I didn’t blame her. I knew the coaching she had given me was rare, and I was still craving her expertise and constant challenges to improve.
In my last year at this school, I experienced a slow decline in my emotional engagement in the work of teaching, despite having extremely high test scores and a greater leadership role in the school. I was observed the most I had ever been in my career, but it was the least helpful time I’ve spent in meetings. While my previous coach had tracked things like percentage of student vs. teacher talk, rigor of questioning, and text complexity in her observations, my new coach was checking items off on a list, exactly the same as he had in every other class he visited: Were rules posted? Was there common formatting on worksheets? Did I have a behavior tracker on the wall? And most importantly, was there a standardized test question embedded in every lesson? The deep, personal inquiry into student learning was replaced with questions of compliance and testing. I pushed back in feedback meetings, and was reminded repeatedly that our students would only graduate if they passed the state exam. I wanted to shoot higher than the state test. I wanted my students doing college-level work, thinking beyond a simple multiple choice test question. I wanted them to question me, the texts, and each other. I wanted them to argue, reflect, and create authentic artifacts of their learning. But the resistance I faced was strong, and it drove me out of the classroom.
Today, I work to mentor new teachers-in-training, and much of my drive for coaching is rooted in a desire for them (and most importantly, their students) to have what I did not. This year, I’m challenging myself to plan my coaching with the three major things that worked for me in mind: personalized development goals grounded in classroom observations and student data, opportunities for peer-to-peer observation and feedback, and use of coaching time to seek new resources and work side by side with a mentor, rather than receiving top-down feedback. I hope to be transparent about these goals with my team, so that when fatigue hits in March, they’ll hold me accountable to what I said I would do, and refocus me as the facilitator of a community of adult learners.
I challenge you, educators of all types: do what you can to support your colleagues’ growth to help prevent burnout and turnover.
New teachers: find a veteran and hang out in their classroom while they teach. Ask them questions about their practice and take risks to try some of their techniques.
Veterans: instead of chatting with them in the teacher’s lounge, open your classroom door to the fresh-faced teachers joining your staff this year. Show them how you balance all of the hats you wear as a teacher. Create a community of teachers who support and learn from each other.
Administrators and coaches: ask questions of the teachers you coach. What do they see as their biggest challenge? Where do they want to grow? Work alongside your teachers to develop a culture of inquiry and learning. Seek feedback from them all along the way, instead of just providing yours.
Let’s make this school year one that fosters development for all, so our children can reap the benefits.
When I was thirteen, I met a person who would redefine what I expected from a teacher. And for this, I consider myself very fortunate. I have had many teachers who cared about me, but no one influenced me as much as Fernando Acosta.
For context, I did secondary education in a brand-new school in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was part of the first generation; we were sort of like beta testers. Fernando was hired to teach an ambitious Human Development class. The school was Catholic and boy, did they get more than they expected from Fernando.
Fernando was the first teacher I realized had a life beyond the classroom. Every student has that moment where they see a teacher outside of school, perhaps in the mall for the first time. The difference for me, was that I had this revelation talking to him inside school.
Fernando was an extrovert, religious, but pragmatic, but more importantly he spoke to us as adults. Before his class, I always thought teachers looked down on students. They cared for us, but didn’t expect much (besides their class work) from us. Some of us were already thinking about our future, what to study in college, but he went further. “What kind of life do you want?” He wasn’t pushing an agenda. Simultaneously, he was happy to tell you if he disagreed with something. He didn’t sugarcoat things.
The next year, Fernando became the school’s principal. Students and teachers undoubtedly appreciated the guy. Weird how he was rebellious and yet the authority at the same time.
Fernando liked to have one-on-ones with each of us for no other reason than to check in. It wasn’t a scary thing to do: I remember sitting on the stairs with him, talking about my future and maybe politics. “Memo, you are very smart, but that’s not enough. What’s the point of being smart for its own sake?” This question touched me. I thought I was going to eat the world. Why? Because I was smarter than the rest, I believed. This question and Fernando’s way of living opened my eyes up to a bigger world.
He invited me to be a missionary: to go and meet people in real need and help them with what little I could. I learned how to be responsible at fourteen. From this experience, I learned that you can be impoverished and be hopeful and open to new ideas. This community of people gave me way more than I could ever have given them.
So while my classmates were in spring break during high school, I was happy in the middle of Oaxaca. Fernando thought it was a good idea to put me in charge of a team, I’m not sure why. I was scared of failure, but I told myself that if Fernando thought it was right for me to lead, then I must have the ability to handle it.
At nineteen, I reluctantly accepted I was not a believer anymore. It was hard to tell my mother, but telling Fernando was tougher. He had plans for me on his team, yet he took it better than I expected. Once again, no judgment. Sadness yes, but he wished me the best and to stay true to myself.
When I was twenty, Fernando passed away. It was crushing. Once again, he pushed me to an unexplored part of life. This was the first time a person I knew died. I remember him fondly. He was the best kind of teacher: passionate, caring and thought-provoking. To this day, I still reflect on my learning experiences with Fernando.
By: Guillermo “Memo” Alcantara
Platform Lead @ Kiddom
Is there a direct correlation between early childhood learning experiences and high school graduation rates? Are students’ academic learning outcomes in later years, predetermined by the quality of their early childhood education? Research on the subject is all over the place, but, from what I have read, science strongly suggests the answer to these questions is “maybe.”
“…early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives”
Although I am not a researcher, my experience as an arts educator tells me that early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives, and that artistic experiences are key elements for the healthy development of the human mind. This belief is why we have nursery rhymes, fairy tales, toysall the colorful and imaginative things that we commonly associate with childhood.
As a teaching artist who has worked extensively in early childhood education, and as a parent of young children, it seems clear to me that a child who is encouraged to be curious is more likely to develop into a curious adult. Conversely, a young child whose curiosity is discouraged is more likely to end up sitting in the back of their high school classroom with their book closed in front of them. Pre-school and elementary age children, whose natural desire to explore often results in behavior that irritates their teachers, get messages such as “sit up straight” and “color inside the lines.” Even worse, I have recently noticed an alarming trend toward the idea that the way to close the academic achievement gap is to toughen up academic instruction in early childhood. The working notion seems to be that children, especially poor children, need more rigor in their early childhood education.
This line of thinking disturbs me, because recent research indicates that our very young children need more freedom to play and explore, not less. In fact, according to this study (Tullis, Scientific American, 2011.) “early exposure to academics” has the potential “to psychologically damage developing brains.” Although I am an advocate for Common Core, I know rigorous drilling and testing, have little to do with the intention of Common Core, and I’m not the only one to notice that something may be getting lost in the translation by education policy makers.
I am not saying that young children shouldn’t be challenged, or teachers held accountable. I am saying the kind of structured play and exploration that can be provided through arts education is exactly what young minds need to develop, and that we should focus our efforts on make arts education more widely accessible for all our children. There is research to support what I confess is simply my intuition and observation. For example, a study of a cross section of 3,000 children across England, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households. (University of Cambridge, 2013)
Sometimes, especially when I am working in a Title I High School classroom, I wonder how the public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers. Obviously, some of the apathy we see in teens is just a natural part of growing up, but I do wonder how things might turn out differently, if we were really committed to making sure that every child from birth was given the opportunity to learn through serious play.
“The public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers.”
In my idealized early childhood classroom, children from the ages of birth to 7 are working artists in a continual state of creativity and exploration. They are painters, actors, singers, directors, playwrights. I see young children playing by creating worlds with blocks, looking at and making their own books with words and images in them, using a magnifying glass outside to gain inspiration from nature, painting and drawing on the walls, engaging in authentic reflective conversations, and taking age appropriate creative risks by using new words, singing, dancing, and role playing.
Engaging seriously in all of the five commonly accepted art forms (Dance, Theatre, Visual Arts, Writing, and Music) teaches children how to collaborate and regulate themselves. For example, by designing and building imaginary cities, a group of 5 year olds must learn how to work together without knocking over each other’s blocks. They also must manage their bodies so they don’t bump into another. When children use their imaginations, they are examining the way people interact in the real world and are engaged in conflict resolution together.
When they are using a magnifying glass, they unearth the way the glass changes their visual perception. When they are painting and drawing, they are using the arts to deepen their understanding of their emotions and the world around them. Through authentic reflective dialogue, they are learning how to sit still and listen, and how to self advocate for their ideas and feelings.
What begins as play and self regulation in early childhood leads to resiliency and critical thinking in high school. The New York Times reported recently that “persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate” are the “core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness.” (New York Times, 2014) Shortening the time children have for recess, and giving first graders standardized exams is not the way to close the achievement gap, or raise the graduation rate.
Making early childhood education more rigorous and boring for children is not the answer, but it definitely satisfies the adult need to feel like we are making a serious effort to address the hugely complex problem of academic failure in so many of our urban high schools.
Watching my students, and my own children, learn through play has convinced me that play-based learning experiences are the way forward and that arts education is the antidote to a culture that is increasing isolating and anti-intellectual. Too many students, especially low income children, don’t get the kind of play based, arts rich experiences that could help them grow into curious, playful, creative adults. The experts (Daniel Pink, Drive) keep telling us that imagination and creativity are the 21st Century skills.
“Only 37% of New York City students are college and career ready.”
Maybe it’s not because they are bad students. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have arts education and the chance to engage in structured play when they were younger.