Thursday, December 1, 2016

Developing Student Passion for STEM

I was born into a family with four sisters and was primarily exposed to those things stereotypically associated with little girls.  Early on, however, I discovered a love for science, math and figuring out how and why things worked. Later, I discovered my love for technology.  Fortunately for me, influential teachers encouraged me to major in Chemistry which provided a great foundation for my eventual career in education. I do believe that it takes encouragement along with intentionally planned opportunities and exposure to help students discover passions for the skills in the area of STEM to develop.  This is especially true for female students who may otherwise be left out.  
The use of technology has infiltrated almost all aspects of our lives.  As we consider the present and future needs of our world, we know that STEM careers are growing at an all-time high. Helping students develop their abilities to think critically, collaborate and solve real-world problems involving the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics is an essential element of a child’s education.
When considering a STEM program at a particular school, parents should determine the extent to which students within the school in grades K-12 have the opportunity to engage in STEM experiences.  It is important for schools to have a vertically aligned curriculum that intentionally integrates inquiry-based learning opportunities from the earliest grades and throughout high school for all students.  As students seek creative solutions to authentic STEM challenges that increase in complexity as students migrate through the school, their learning is scaffolded and students discover meaningful applications that often lead to lifelong passions. 
In addition to a strong STEM curriculum during the school day, parents should ask about extra-curricular STEM opportunities available for students outside of the classroom. Robotics teams, Odyssey of the Mind, Science Club, Environmental Awareness Club, Math Lab and Drone Teams are examples that allow students to work independently and collaboratively to become proficient at solving real-world problems. Extracurricular participation can allow children extended time to explore and develop their passions, learn to work and compete as part of a team to achieve a common goal.
It is also important for schools to form relationships with business/industry partners and universities to provide authentic applications of STEM and to involve our community experts to help assess and augment the learning process as students learn to research and demonstrate their learning to external audiences. This truly makes it real for our students and again opens their eyes to personal interests and potential career interests.
Finally, parents should inquire about the ongoing growth and professional development of faculty within a school. It is important for all teachers to have a personal growth plan with opportunities to explore and strengthen their unique passions as they seek to engage their students in order to foster critical thinking and ethical problem solving skills. The prototyping of solutions to real world problems integrates essential art and design elements and can be used in all curricular areas.  As teachers increase their awareness of how and when they might incorporate these essential skills within their curriculum, it truly takes it to a new level.

Parents and schools must be intentional as we continually strive to incorporate STEM experiences into the lives of our children. Parents can build on school based experiences by taking advantage of local opportunities such as Maker Faires, museums, and summer camps. Parents can further develop these skills by providing creative outlets for their children by exposing them to fun, hands-on, playful games.  Engineering experiences with aerospace, environmental, marine and mechanical are just a few of the exploration areas.  Even cooking with children can be a great application as well as visiting or searching on Google for DIY STEAM projects to access a plethora of fantastic examples. LEGO’s, drones, free programming apps such as Scratch, Tynker, Daisy the Dinosaur as well as the Robot Turtles cardboard game which teaches programming fundamentals for ages 4 and up can be enjoyable educational opportunities.  
Note: Originally Published in Southern Distinction Magazine, Vol 4.5 2016

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Got Grit?

As a 6th grader at Martin’s Creek Elementary School in the mountains of North Carolina, there was nothing that I enjoyed more than playing softball. I was fortunate that our small school afforded me the opportunity to cultivate this interest during recess and PE.  I soon began spending every spare minute practicing or trying to get someone to “pass” with me. I continued to play for the next 15 years.  I commonly attribute the development of my own understanding and personal commitment to hard work and determined perseverance to the ongoing pursuit of proficiency and success on the athletic fields.  Put another way, I learned “grit.” 

Grit, or dedicated effort over the long haul, is important.  In fact, many colleges and universities are beginning to introduce “grittiness measures” in to their admission considerations.  College completion rates are at an all-time low in the United States.  Too many students, it seems, just give up when the going gets tough.  Too many of them have never been held accountable for committing to a pursuit or endeavor for an extended period of time or to putting forth the ongoing effort necessary to develop proficiency or mastery.
The idea that personal effort over time results in skill development is expanded in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit:  the Power of Passion and Perseverance1. I am especially intrigued by her idea that, as parents, we can foster grit by encouraging our children to participate in at least one extra-curricular activity of their choice. She actually recommends that as soon as our children are old enough, we sign them up for at least one structured, extra-curricular activity outside of class and that we require that our children stay with it for at least a year.  In fact, Duckworth suggests we require our children to stick with a pursuit for two or more years during high school. As a social scientist and a parent she believes that kids thrive when they spend at least some part of their week doing hard things that interest them. Ballet, piano, karate, basketball or any structured activity provide two important elements that are hard to replicate in any other setting. First there is a supportive, demanding adult in charge who is not the parent.  Secondly, committed participation develops practice skills and fosters a sense of purpose and hope. Some coaches realize the importance and ask players to take Duckworth’s Grit Scale linked below to partner with students to further develop their perseverance or grit.

Duckworth shares that school can be difficult but it is not always interesting. When teens are texting their friends or watching TV, it is interesting…but it is not hard. Things like dance, acting, athletics or learning to play an instrument can be both and it provides a wonderful opportunity for challenge and intrinsic motivation. Duckworth also shares that many long-term research studies indicate that students who participate in extra-curricular activities end up with better grades, have higher self-esteem and are less likely to get in trouble.

I agree with many of Duckworth’s ideas throughout her book such as the importance of cultivating a child’s interests, developing a daily habit of challenging practice, and that connecting to a purpose beyond yourself increases happiness. The idea that learning to hope when all seems lost stuck a chord with me as well. We will all experience failure and we must learn to pick ourselves up and try again.
I can think of a number of friends, adults, and teachers in my life who have encouraged me, provided guidance or challenged my potential at critical times throughout my life.  The grit they unknowingly helped me develop along the way has served me well.  I am reminded that we, too, must all be cognizant of opportunities to invest ourselves in the lives of others.  Our children will only learn those things we decide to teach them.  It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes grit.  Got grit?

1Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. London: Vermillion.

2Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit Scale. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from 

Note: Originally Published in Southern Distinction Magazine, Vol 4.4 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

College Choices Revisit

I watch, in relative dismay, as it happens every year.  I, along with armies of capable and interested parents and educators, will have invested in the lives of students over the course of their school careers.  We will have investigated and worked toward implementing useful pedagogical frameworks and strategies – design thinking, project-based learning, brain-based learning to name a few – in efforts to engage students and catalyze curiosity and learning.  We will have worked toward integrating appropriate technologies in an effort to help unleash collaboration and creativity and will have helped to hone critical thinking and problem solving skills.  We will have utilized all sorts of formative and summative assessment tools to make sure our students are progressing well.  In lock step, parents and teachers will have also worked together to nurture and develop young people with character, confidence and grit.

All too often, these things come to a screeching halt with the question, “Where are you going to college?” 

As parents and students begin to receive those anxiously anticipated college acceptance announcements, a new priority for decision making tends to emerge.  Too often, instead of asking which colleges and universities to which our children have been accepted offer the greatest chance for our student’s success, we ask, “What’s the most prestigious school my kid has gotten in?”  We begin to envision the reaction of other parents on Senior Night when our child’s college choice is publically announced.  We begin to imagine how great it will feel to deliver that passing, cocktail party line, “She had so many options but she’s finally decided on the University of Great Big Fat Hairy Deal.  How about your sweet (lesser-achieving, can’t possibly compete with my kid) son?  Where has he decided to go?”  At the very least, we want to be able to say, “Yeah, mine too.”

There is no doubt that a college education still offers substantially higher income opportunities and is a petri-dish for personal development.  It is a worthy goal.   Admittedly, the commonly accepted most prestigious schools in the country (or in your state) do, indeed, come with a high degree of alumni pride and connectivity and still garner the attention of readers of resumes and employment applications.  There is no question that being a networked alumnus of a “prestigious” school offers an employment leg up.  There is little question that the resume of an applicant who graduates from a “prestigious” school will move toward the top of the stack (although pertinent experience has become the most desirable factor). 

Being admitted to a reputedly prestigious school, however, in no way, shape, form or fashion ensures student success.  More importantly, attending such a school does not ensure your child will continue to develop confidence and passion or character and grit.  On the contrary, the competition may be crushing and the pressure to not blow the chance for so-called prestige may be overwhelming.  Moreover, there may not be a social or cultural “fit” which can result in its own special brand of misery.  There is no substitute for happiness and a sense of belonging.  The best and most attentive college counselors understand this.   More and more, their focus is on helping match students will colleges based on their individual strengths, interests, and even their level of readiness.   Brian Rutledge, Director of College Counseling at Woodward Academy in Atlanta Georgia says, “We should not judge colleges by their names, nor should we judge people by the names of their colleges.  Education, indeed life itself, is not that simple.”

While understandably tempting, the key question should not be, “What is the most impressive, prestigious college my child can attend?”  Rather, the question should primarily be, “Where can my child continue to become?  Where will she thrive?”

(For an interesting take on this topic, read Malcom Gladwell’s story about Caroline Sachs in his book David and Goliath.  Ms. Sachs, who opted to attend Brown University, is reported to have said with regret, “If I had gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in Science.”)  

Note: This article first appeared in Southern Distinction Magazine - Education Column. White, C. 2016

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Intentionally Developing Learners

It is interesting to me that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 20 years than we have learned in the previous 2 centuries.  Brain scans using MRI imaging, DNA analysis and a plethora of research has contributed to the formation of some valuable information and strategies that we can use to help our children develop into happy, successful young adults.

At the forefront of this emerging research is the concept of neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, and neuroplasticity or the making and strengthening of new neural connections as we engage in learning experiences. Yes, we can actually become smarter and the belief that intelligence is fixed is a false assumption. Carol Dweck has written about the importance of a “growth mindset”1 which supports the idea that we can become smarter when we put effort into learning. 

Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson develop this idea even further in their book Positively Smarter. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are at the center of their work but they further highlight that much of our achievement, happiness and well-being depends on us.  We have the ability to expand our knowledge, skills and intelligence to achieve our goals. We can nurture a positive, optimistic attitude by increasing our focus. They share research that supports the idea that worrying, daydreaming or allowing our minds to wander contributes to an unhappy mind. Conversely, true focus and being present in the moment leads to greater happiness.

Conyers and Wilson share the “Focused Fifteen,”2 listed below which allows us to intentionally channel our minds to become happier, more successful and more likely to achieve our goals.

  1. Savor the wow of now.
  2. Work at consciously maintaining an upbeat attitude.
  3. Picture a positive future.
  4. Actively commit acts of kindness.
  5. Acknowledge and appreciate the good things in your life.
  6. Recognize and set aside negative thoughts and worries.
  7. Take time to relate to others in positive ways.
  8. Achieve a state of flow or find yourself “in the zone.”
  9. Set and monitor your progress toward positive goals.
  10. Respond with resilience to tough challenges.
  11. Look past other’s real and imagined transgressions to let go of anger and resentment.
  12. Move your body to boost your mood.
  13. Smile frequently and naturally.
  14. Play to your peak strengths.
  15. Identify and share the treasures in your life.

The correlation between thinking and feeling should be acknowledged. Psychologist Richard Davidson shared, “Emotions works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work, and spiritual growth.”3

In education, we are starting to realize the importance of helping children develop their selective attention and to concentrate on their studies or other important tasks. We often refer to this as “Mindfulness training.”

As parents and educators, we should realize that with the exception of those children with severe learning differences, 95% have the potential to increase their potential by developing critical reasoning and problem solving skills. If we communicate and act on that belief and provide opportunities for our children to practice skills, set positive goals and learn cognitive and metacognitive skills to take control of their learning, they will develop into successful, happier learners.

1 Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
2 Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2015). Positively smarter: Science and strategies for increasing happiness, achievement, and well-being. UK: John Wiley & Sons.
3 Davidson, R, & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain (P.89). New York: Hudson Street Press.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Importance of Learning Languages

As people continue to become more and more globally connected due to advances in mobility and communication, there is a heightened national emphasis on foreign language competency.  Parents know that students who learn a second language glean a number of important benefits  such as enhanced college and employment potential, improved achievement in native language ability, increased intercultural sensitivity and understanding, greater cognitive development and an increased self-awareness of oneself and one’s own culture. Schools are responding as well and are shifting instruction from methods that primarily focus on grammar and vocabulary memorization to performance methods that focus on communication in meaningful and appropriate ways.

I am one of many who can attest to the fact that I have never been asked to conjugate a verb when traveling internationally and all of my previous years of studying a second language has not resulted in anything even close to fluency. The Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century 3rd Edition Revised (NSFLEP, 2006) powerfully and clearly declares, “To study another language and culture gives one the powerful key to successful communications: knowing how, when and why to say what to whom, All the linguistic and social knowledge required for effective human-to-human interaction is encompassed in those ten words”1

The Standards define five goal areas that are commonly called the 5 Cs – Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities- along with 11 standards for those goals areas. I love the fact that these standards no longer focus on what we want students to know about the language but rather focus on what the students can do with the language. 2

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines3 are also a wonderful support for schools immersed in this transition of foreign language instruction (now more appropriately referred to as world language instruction.)  ACTFL explains what students can do with the language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading using real-world situations. They also include proficiency descriptions entitled Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior and Distinguished levels. This is helpful since not all students begin the study of a world language at the same age, for the same amount of time or use the same type of program. Students can work at various proficiency levels in the same classroom.

Incorporating the standards and guidelines and studying the work of experts such as Laura Terrill, Greg Duncan, Donna Clementi and others can help schools to continually reflect and improve instructional practices and unit development by considering carefully what is taught, how we teach and how we know that students have learned. Best practices that support learners as they seek to acquire the skills needed for an uncertain future include a plethora of meaningful ideas.  Teachers can incorporate real world, interesting themes that are designed around discovery and heightened use of the target language in class.  They can also promote the development of the widely accepted 21st Century skills  - Communication, Collaboration & Cross-Cultural Understanding, Creativity & Innovation and Critical Thinking & Problem Solving.  Instruction is brain-based, differentiated, and empowers students by promoting self-efficacy and participation in the learning while also motivating students to want to learn. Finally, teachers can integrate a variety of formative and summative assessment options such as rubrics, interpretive, interpersonal and presentation elements.
I love the words by Sandra Savignon highlighted in Donna Clementi and Laura Terrill’s book (p. 59)2Learning to speak another’s language means taking one’s place in the human community. It means reaching out to others across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Language is far more than a system to be explained. It is our most important link to the world around us. Language is culture in motion. It is people interacting with people.”

1 Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century: Including Arabic, Chinese, Classical Languages, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 3rd ed. Yonkers, NY: National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 2006. 11. Print.
2Clementi, Donna, and Laura Terrill. The Keys to Planning for Learning: Effective Curriculum, Unit, and Lesson Design. Alexandria: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2013. Print.
 3American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Proficiency Guidelines- Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading, (3rd Ed). Alexandria, Va. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. .