Creating a Culture of Learning

As an educator in an Atlanta area private school that is diverse by design, I have seen firsthand the important role that school plays in developing healthy youth who will become the kind of adults we need to run our society 25 years from now. For nearly a decade, I have been a middle school educator, working alongside young people as they find their place in the world. My work in the classroom led me back to pursue a Ph.D. in teaching and learning with a research focus on self-directed learning.

In 2018, I cofounded The Forest School, a self-directed learning environment with an ambitious mission to help everyone who enters its doors find a calling that will change the world. ­This mission is controversial. It assumes that schools play a role in shaping young people and that those young people in turn play a role in shaping the world. As such, at The Forest School, we are interested in the types of people we are cultivating. This inevitably leads to questions of morality, ethics, and character: what do we call good and wise and right? Our school is non-religious and multi-cultural—a microcosm of American society. How then does our learning community deal with questions of virtue?

To find answers to these important questions, I joined The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia as a postdoctoral fellow assisting in the Moral Ecology Project—a multi-year study into the forces that shape the moral lives of young people. We are attempting to build an instrument that will help school communities navigate the complex space of morality and character formation.

Imagine you are a school leader and are curious about how parents and community members view America’s place in the world, the role of race in contemporary society, or the trustworthiness of our democratic institutions. At a time of increasing polarization in American society, it is difficult for teachers and school leaders to know how to meaningfully engage students, parents, and community members on so-called “hot button” issues. In fact, many state legislatures (including our own in Georgia) have enacted laws restricting discussion and exploration of “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Rather than “rock the boat” and risk litigation, many schools will avoid meaningfully engaging students, parents, and the community in having discussions, learning from each other, and reflecting upon how their understandings of morality and virtue shape their views of the world.

That is where my current research comes in. I am part of a small team working to create a data collection tool for school leaders that will give them a snapshot of the moral ecology of their community. Our instrument is designed as a starting point. A school leader can employ a survey to stakeholders—collect data from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders—as way to gain an outline into the complexities of their thinking. You can think of this instrument as a thermometer—a way to gauge the temperature of potentially divisive issues—allowing the collection of data from the community to inform school leaders on how to respond. How might the relationships between schools and parents be strengthened through dialogue, especially around areas of greatest disagreement, and the whole community work together on a way forward?

This is, in theory and practice, the democratic principle. The founding motto of the U.S.—E pluribus unum, “out of many, one”—highlights the hope that disparate, distinct persons with their own views of morality, authority, and goodness can indeed create a cohesive society. It is true that care must be taken to ensure that all members of a society can fully and freely access its goods. This is all the more reason for community engagement around our approach to schooling: it is about who does and does not feel included in the current design of a school.

The instrument we are building at IASC is designed to give school leaders insights into what stakeholders have to say about the school’s role in the development of character. The goal is to create something useful that allows any school (public, private, or charter) leader to get feedback from teachers, staff, parents, and community members on sensitive but crucial topics and then provide a visual story of that data, which school leaders can employ however they wish. We are piloting the instrument at The Forest School (one of three pilots this year) and will analyze the data as a team. We will then take the lessons learned and revise the instrument, following up with another round of pilots later this year or next year.

Our schools are shaping our children, but shaping them into what and for what reasons? Let us talk about this together.


Caleb Collier is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

A Reflection About Schooling from a Former Classroom Teacher

Back in the first pandemic summer of 2020, I witnessed considerable clamoring on social media, urging schools not to go back to “normal” once the pandemic ended because “normal”, or business-as-usual in American schools, is, for many students, a less than optimal experience. Regrettably, the call for change permeated the air only but for a moment. Instead, school districts and educators had to determine how to effectively run their schools and classrooms on virtual platforms amidst constantly changing directives and erratic guidelines coming from the federal government and the CDC—all of which made sense at the time. Since our return to “normal,” however, we are seeing alarming trends of chronic absenteeism among students while teachers exit the profession. Although the pandemic certainly is to blame for some of this, none of these problems are new. In fact, we have been battling them for years. As with the great resignation, the pandemic allowed young people and teachers to reassess the meaningless grind of top–down approaches to teaching and learning.

As a career educator and now a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, I see what is at stake as foundational in nature. One way to avoid bleeding out teachers and re-engage our youth is to shake up the “normal” way of doing things. To do this, teachers and youth need additional respect and autonomy so they can create meaningful, real-world curricula that is centered on youth and turns away from performative, perfunctory, and transactional learning. Recent nationwide surveys have shown two relevant findings. First, students surveyed placed happiness and caring for others above individual achievement. In another survey, youth said they wanted a meaningful curriculum that is relevant to the real world around them. Teachers know how to deliver both things—if we let them.

If you have ever been a teacher, you know that students ask you, “Why? Why are we learning this?” I left teaching when I realized my answers to this question no longer satisfied me (and probably my students too). My responses felt mechanical, empty, and devoid of the kind of meaning that everyone in the classroom was yearning for. I would say things such as, “because you need these skills and this knowledge to get ahead in society, to be able to pursue what makes you happy in life, and, of course, to pass the class!” While all of this is true, it can feel empty to young people because it lacks purpose or connection to the immediacy of their daily lives or the real world around them. Paolo Freire, a famous educational philosopher called our current teaching style, the “banking method.” Without going too deeply into his work, Freire says that our approach tries to “deposit” knowledge into our youth without applying any critical dialogue. Ultimately, this maintains the status quo because students receive information like robots rather than becoming critically reflective and transformational thinkers.

So, what is the state of the current situation? With all the recent demonization of teachers, we first need to understand that our nation’s teachers are highly educated professionals who, next to family and friends, are the most supportive figures in the lives of youth (according to youth). Therefore, we really need to trust teachers. Next, we need to suspend our obsession with the rigid input–output ideas of how learning happens. Teachers and youth should be joint collaborators who design and carry out project-based, experimental activities that have the potential to actually solve real-world problems. Yes, math facts are necessary and so is basic literacy, but the manner in which they are acquired does not have to be frozen in time. We underestimate and over-mandate our teachers and students so heavily that we stifle innovation and creativity on a daily basis. All A’s and high ACT scores are great, but, frankly, a cadre of citizens who know how to sit down and talk through problems facing local communities would be better. This can only happen if we trust not only our educators but the power of our young people to pitch in and help. Instead, our schools have become fossilized institutions that maintain the status quo and deaden the learning experience when what our country really needs right now are engaged, caring, critically thinking, and community-focused citizens who can right this ship.

Amy Laboe is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Valuing Our Educators

The cover of a thank-you note: words on a musical staff next to a treble clef: "A little note of thanks & congratulations!!!""

Who knows the value of an educator? We all do, we just don’t pause often to acknowledge it.

Here are some lessons the student in me values from past educators. Mrs. Magrath and Mr. Sponder taught me being myself was ok. Mr. Palange brought literature to life by acting out characters, while Mrs. Christon taught us how to create our own literature. Mrs. Vasquez taught us not to take anything for granted as she shared her family’s harrowing immigration from Cuba. Mr. LoPresti, my driver’s education instructor in high schools,  could have been a stand-up comedian. Through humor he took away my fear of driving. Ms. Chambers taught me that not making the cut (basketball team) didn’t mean I was of no value. I learned to keep stats for the team and loved it! I got to attend all games, without sweating, and something I really needed, a place to belong. And Mrs. Palmer Hoyle taught me that you could find beauty in everything if you allowed the beauty in yourself to bloom. These lessons were life lessons I still value, along with the educators who shared them.

Parents also know the value of an educator, even if it’s delayed knowledge. As a parent, who was also a teacher, my own vision sometimes blurred. I knew I had more insight into my students than their parents did because of the environment I saw them in. I witnessed their interactions with subject matter and peers.  Extracurricular activities allowed me to see them in an additional setting. The comfort they felt talking to me opened my eyes to insights their parents may not have been privy to. However, when it came to my own children, it was difficult to admit someone else might know best. Just as doctors, I’m told,  are sometimes the worse patients, parents, if not instantly, do come to value the wisdom of educators.

As a colleague I know the value of educators. At an event I was asked to address, in three minutes or less, how School Board Members and Superintendents could support and make teachers feel valued; if I’d had any support that was especially noteworthy; and, how, as districts were trying to increase the number of teachers of color, those teachers could best be supported.  My response:

Teaching today is no easy feat. My career began in the early 80’s. There were no personal cellphones, computers, 3D video games, etc. for us to compete with. Engaging and keeping students engaged is much more of a challenge now.  For teachers to feel supported by you, I would suggest the following:

  1. Listen. Even if you do not like or agree with a point we are trying to make, allow us to state it. We need to be heard… it makes a world of difference.
  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I cannot count the number of times I have seen people passed over for positions that are given to those that ‘look’ the part, i.e., makeup intact, or clothes from stores in which I can’t afford to shop. I’ve never been that person, BUT, this is definitely where I am supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.
  1. Show up for our events in, and outside, of school. Be visible. When you are, even when we do not agree with policies you put in place, we know that we are valued, and it makes your decisions easier to accept.
  1. Send one line thank yous, “I appreciate you,” “It was nice to see you,” “It was a pleasure to visit your class,” etc. Little things matter.
  1. Don’t get stuck in checklists. My classroom had no whiteboard and no room to add one. I was interacting with students through technology when a team came in for a walk through. I ran to switch the smartboard over to my objectives so the evaluator could check off the objective box. That broke the flow of my lesson and my students’ learning. This shouldn’t be necessary!

For noteworthy support, my points described my former and current, (at that time), Superintendents, John Ramos, Fran Rabinowitz and Dr. Aresta Johnson. In addition to the support already mentioned, add for minority educators, cultural/diversity awareness, allowing freedom regarding cultural dress, clothing, hairstyles, and celebrations without penalty.

Educators are professionals. Showing you recognize our value goes a long way, thank you. 2:59 minutes!”

My response today is the same. Educators’ knowledge, passion, dedication, and honesty intrigued me and made me a lifelong learner. There is no greater way to make a positive impact on this world, than teaching. We all know, but must show, we value those who choose this honorable profession.

Sheena Graham began teaching in 1983. She offered workshops on music literacy and connecting parents and teachers, while writing original musicals and creating teaching tools for colleagues.  Her recording and writing experience is extensive. Ms. Graham’s original works have been performed locally, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and twice at the White House. Her passion for reengaging disengaged students has led to her receiving the Beard Excellence in Teaching Award, among many others. She is Connecticut’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. Her advice to others is, “Do not let your image be designed by your inactivity.” Ms. Graham retired from teaching in December, 2021.

“Discover Your Soul Language”: The Impact of Exposure, Experience, and Engagement through Music and the Arts

There is something deep within each of us that has its own language, a dialect that is universal, believe it or not, that is transcultural when heard, and connections are made instantly.  This language is what I call “soul language”.  The language of the soul (because it resonates there) is powerful because no matter what your learning capabilities are it can only be tapped into through the arts or through music.

Recently, I watched the animated movie entitled, “Soul”.  It reveals, what I call, the discovery of the “soul language” of a middle school band director, Joe Gardner (voice over by actor Jamie Foxx), whose life dream was to play in the best jazz band in New York city.  He was introduced to jazz by his father and instantly jazz became his “soul language”.  He experienced an unfortunate misstep that led him to what was called “The Great Before”-a place where new souls get their personalities, their quirks, and all that makes them who they will become.  Stuck in this realm of the ‘Great Before’, Joe meets a very interesting pre-existing soul called Number 22, who he engages to assist him to getting his life back or getting back to earth.  The problem is Number 22 doesn’t understand the appeal of the human experience (you’ll have to watch the rest of the movie!).

Imagine human life without colors, texture, musical sounds or rhythms, improvisation, or other sources that generates from the arts and cultivates individuality and creativity.  Imagine existing in a reality where reaching one’s fullest potential was not an option.  The language of the soul would never develop its voice and the human experience would never create interactions that would truly allow people to be who or what they were created to be. The language of the soul would never have a place of expression where even those with special emotional and physical needs might feel a sense of purpose and self-worth. There is a freedom experienced in the arts that is revealed as the language of the soul, i.e., the language of one’s true self that is just waiting to be discovered!  Art and music educators are the experts who facilitate this progress for enabling this language to come forth through exposure, experiences, and engagement.

Learning through exposure

Many students learn their soul language through being exposed to the different genres of art and music.  Guided practice with a paint brush or a classroom instrument gives students unlimited opportunities to be exposed to what is possible to achieve.  Research says that music ignites all areas of child development and skills for school readiness, including intellectual, social-emotional, motor, language, and overall literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together. Exposing children to music during early development helps them learn the sounds and meanings of words. Dancing to music helps children build motor skills while allowing them to practice self-expression. For children and adults, music helps strengthen memory skills.[1]

Learning through experience

The classroom experience is the laboratory of discovery where students are allowed to be who they are without fear of judgement.  As a result of the pandemic, students have experienced a traumatic shift in learning, going from in-person learning to virtual learning then back to in-person learning, over the past 18 or more months. The arts can play a crucial role for students and educators, especially in addressing healing and trauma. Through research we know that participation in the arts can support the social and emotional learning needs of students, including teaching emotional regulation and compassion for others. They can also provide an outlet for students to process their emotions following trauma so they can begin the healing process and build resiliency.[2]

Learning through engagement

The time is now for more intentional engagement in the arts and music.  More resources are needed for the implementation of innovative ways to utilize the arts to bring “soul language” back to the stage! Soul language always make connections that sparks other gifts and talents through engagement because of the inspiration that it brings.  In the movie, Joe Gardner, fights for the revival of his ‘soul language’, and discovers that one of his students named Connie, his trombone player, wants to fight for her ‘soul language’ as well! Inspiration breeds inspiration! There may sometimes appear to be a dead-end road in teaching and learning but, the arts and music has the undeniable ability to build a bridge for success!  There must be a bridge built, through the arts and must, to keep students connected in teaching and learning AND help them to discover their inner voice, their ‘soul language’.

Dr. Toney McNair, Jr., D. Min. is currently employed with the Virginia Education Association as a UniServ Director serving the Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Isle of Wight school divisions.  He is a 23-year veteran of public education having taught General Music at the elementary and Choral Music at the middle, and high school levels. Most noted, Dr. McNair was selected, by the Virginia Department of Education, as the 2017 Virginia Teacher of the Year, representing nearly 100,000 educators and 1.3 million public school students in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  He has served on and chaired numerous committees and received numerous awards and recognitions.  He is also a successful grant writer and is most noted for acquiring a brand new Yamaha baby grand piano for his middle school music program. 

He currently serves as a member of the African American Advisory Superintendent’s Council for the Virginia Department of Education and a facilitator on Human and Civil Rights/Racial Justice for the National Education Association.  He holds a B.S. degree in Public School Music (Vocal/Piano/Organ) K-12 (Norfolk State University); Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees (Virginia Union University); as well as a Master of Education degree in Administration and Supervision (Averett University).  He is married with four children and four grandchildren and resides in Elizabeth City, NC.

[1] Retrieved from:

[2] Retrieved from:

Preparing Our Next Generation of Citizens Through STEM Education

As per President Barack Obama, “[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world.” Technological advancements are contributing to expanding education and learning in the 21st century. At the beginning of the 21st century, The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were written, due to a report titled “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for the Global Economy (2009),” which was published by the Carnegie Corporation. This report explained how science and math education were the main drivers for our economy and, that our education system needed to focus on preparing our students for a future in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields as discoverers and innovators. The National Research Council published “Successful K-12 STEM Education (2011),” which states:

…the primary driver of the future economy and concomitant creation of jobs will be innovation, largely derived from advances in science and engineering… 4 percent of the nation’s workforce is composed of scientists and engineers; this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.

This report called for innovative STEM instruction in schools to improve our economy, our humanity and our standards of living, and, with this report, began the development of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). Developing these standards was done through collaborative work of science educators and professionals in the STEM workforce. The “Successful K-12 STEM Education (2011),” report helped develop a model of “real-world” science standards that can be implemented in schools to help students learn and engage in science so that they are prepared to contribute to the STEM workforce.

With STEM occupations growing more rapidly than non-STEM occupations, our students have greater opportunities in STEM careers. The goal for STEM educators is to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the 21st Century. This STEM education will support their learning through solving problems and evaluating evidence to make decisions. Therefore, STEM educators are preparing our students for their future, while STEM education creates innovators and problem solvers.

Since science is everywhere in the world around us, STEM education is so important and meaningful to students. With technology continuously expanding, it is in every aspect of their lives. Mathematics is used in every occupation as well as in our daily lives, and engineering design is all around us in buildings, roads, and bridges. STEM education helps us understand the world around us better, in areas such as weather, climate, and natural disasters. By exposing students to real world experiences, they are informed and prepared about a future in STEM. Real-life connection to STEM will give students an early, strong, science education that helps them make connections and know the possibilities of careers in STEM.

The importance of developing 21st century skills in all our students helps prepare them for their future. 21st century skills are developed through critical thinking, analysis, self-reflection, and awareness of belief systems of multicultural groups and examining real-world    situations. The universe is viewed as evolving and STEM teaching methods focus on hands-on problem-solving of current issues. Students are encouraged to apply their knowledge to real situations through experimental inquiry and diverse perspectives. This will prepare students for a future in STEM careers.

In conclusion, the long-term benefits of STEM education provide a huge investment in our future. Implementing STEM education in our schools today, gives the current generation of students opportunities to be successful as adults. Careers in STEM offer higher earnings and provide for higher standards of living, and, an enhanced quality of life. More  females in STEM careers will be a turning point for future generations. These generations will be more likely to grow up in families that can offer them enriching opportunities and lifestyles. Therefore, society in general will benefit if more students are heading towards a future in STEM  careers.


National Research Council 2011. Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy. Retrieved from ort_2009_opportunityequation.pdf

Tehmina Khan is a high school science department chair with 12 years of experience in education.  She has a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology from The City University of New York, a Masters in Science degree in Health Sciences and Secondary Science Education and a sixth-year certificate in Educational Leadership from Quinnipiac University. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Bridgeport, studying International Educational Leadership.  In her current school district, Tehmina has written the science curricula for the Human Biology, Environmental Biology and Chemistry NGSS-aligned courses and facilitated several workshops in improving instructional practices during faculty and department meetings. 

Tehmina was a Teacher of the Year finalist at her current district, prior to becoming an administrator.  She is currently a second year fellow of The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) VOYA STEM Fellowship, which includes 15 members of NNSTOY and 15 high-potential educators that collaboratively explore what leads to effective STEM learning to support STEM educators and provide students with robust learning environments to increase their interest in STEM careers.  Tehmina’s dissertation research focuses on teacher leadership models and programs that build capacity in schools. 

Designing Our Teaching for Wonder

In your experience in education, (or in life), have you ever had two years that were the same? How about two classes? How about two children? In my twenty-five years of teaching, one truth rings out: every class and every child is beautifully unique. Why do schools continue to narrow the curriculum emphasizing only a few subjects if this is true?

Many years ago, I was offered a ticket to hear a guest lecturer on the UW-Madison Campus. The speaker was the late Sir Ken Robinson. This event marked my first introduction to Sir Ken, and I found myself furiously taking notes as he spoke. In his talk that night, he said, “Intelligence is Diverse, Dynamic and Distinct: We know that each individual demonstrates their intelligence in uniquely different ways. A system that focuses on merely one path, one way of doing, undervalues those that don’t fit the mold.”

Our country seems obsessed with increasing math and literacy scores. I have observed school systems doubling down on instructional minutes in these two areas while reducing time in the arts and other electives. Overworked teachers are being asked to analyze test data, create Student Learning Objectives, and craft SMART Goals, all in an effort to improve scores. Terms such as “tougher standards,” “higher expectations,” “raising the bar,” and “accountability” have been thrown around by politicians, school boards, and administrators. All the while, students in higher numbers come to school seeking meaning, connection, and joy.

Our myopic focus on student test scores in a narrow range of subjects has created an environment that devalues and alienates many students. We need to broaden our curriculum and eliminate standardized testing while developing multifaceted ways for students to demonstrate growth and achievement.

In his book, Out of our Minds, Ken Robinson writes, “All over the world, governments are pouring vast resources into education reform. In the process, policymakers typically narrow the curriculum to emphasize a small group of subjects, tie schools up in a culture of standardized testing and limit the discretion of educators to make professional judgments about how and what to teach. These reforms are typically stifling the very skills and qualities that are essential to meet the challenges we face: creativity, cultural understanding, communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. Many people are diverted from their natural paths in life by the preoccupation in education with academic intelligence and the hierarchy of disciplines. It shows itself especially in the distinction between academic and vocational programs and the idea that doing practical work or studying for a trade is lower grade than taking an academic degree.” (Robinson, 339)

I see politicians and administrators working harder than ever to get our school “machine” to run better and more efficiently. The problem, though, is that the “system” is outdated and will no longer meet the needs of our rapidly changing world. We need to embrace the concept that intelligence is broader than our current views. We need to realize that standardized tests do not give us definitive numbers to base significant decisions solely. We need to recognize that “the task of education is not to teach subjects: it is to teach students. We need to see educators as professionals and give them the tools they need to make the best decisions for their students. We need to support educators with highly developed professional development, which encourages collaboration and not competition. We need to make decisions based on data from multiple sources and look to research to find best practices. We need to take a vested interest in each of our students and realize that “at the heart of education is the relationship between teachers and students. If students are not learning, education is not happening” (Robinson, 647). “We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers” (Hedges, 16).

In 2017 I had the privilege of speaking to Sir Ken Robinson on the phone. During our conversation, he said, “It’s not an argument against math or science — on the contrary, they’re desperately important. But they’re not enough. A great country like this depends not only on mathematicians and scientists and engineers but on people who can work in business, on artists, on musicians, and on people who work in the community. We depend on a huge range of talents and abilities.”

I believe that we can create vibrant and thoughtful learning spaces where students as young as Kindergarten grapple with our deepest and most enduring questions. We can design our teaching for wonder rather than performance, for curiosity rather than testing, and for innovation rather than compliance. All of it starts with regaining balance in our curriculum while welcoming and valuing the diverse interests and abilities already inside our students.

Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. He was recently selected as one of the five 2021 Horace Mann award recipients by the NEA Foundation, as well as a Top 50 Finalist for the 2021 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO. He is also a current semi-finalist for the 2022 GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year Award.

In 2009 Chris started the ComMission Possible Project that annually commissions a new work for band. Chris recently served as a Teacher Leadership and Engagement Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction inspiring future education majors across the state. He is the past-chair of the Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP) Committee, the Wisconsin State Middle-Level Honors Band and the Wisconsin State Middle-Level Honors Project. In 2019 Gleason was selected as an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow and traveled to South Africa. Mr. Gleason is the founder and organizer of the Beyond The Notes Music Festival Inc. in Wisconsin Dells that has to date inspired more than 35,000 young musicians and 70 future music educators.   Mr. Gleason recently presented his own talk at 2019 TEDxOshkosh entitled, “Lighting a Fire in Kids


Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. New York: Nation Books, 2009. Print.

Robinson, Sir Ken. “Developing Imagination in Education” Full Sail University, March 25, 2008. Lecture.

Robinson, Sir Ken. Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative. United Kingdom: Capstone Publishing, 2011. iBook, Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

I Am Preparing Students for Jobs That Do Not Yet Exist!

This is my number one goal for teaching approximately 140 extraordinary 8th graders every year. As a 22-year veteran Science teacher, I have been fortunate to see my students’ hard work pay off over the years, as adulthood  has taken them on many diverse journeys. Their dreams have led them to become forensic scientists, windmill technicians, mechanics, engineers, doctors, lawyers, construction workers (who have built onto my house in a chance meeting), and everything in between. No matter what path they choose, they need to have a ‘toolbox’ that they can access when becoming productive members of society. STEM affords them the opportunity to become lifelong learners by creating problem solvers and critical thinkers.

STUDENTS are the focus, rather than an exclusive subject. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math immerses students into real world situations.

Science, ELA, Math, and History are all interconnected, and intertwining the      learning that takes place in all content areas together makes our students’ skills and knowledge worldly and diverse. STEM provides opportunities and opens doors for STUDENTS by developing 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, creativity, problem solving, perseverance, collaboration, information literacy, technology skills and digital literacy, to name a few. To immerse our students in real world applications turns them into critical thinkers and problem solvers, and, prepares them for a world that will lead us forward.

As STUDENTS are my focus, exposing them to STEM activities, I have seen students come alive with ideas, share their strengths, build on their weaknesses, and gain confidence in themselves and the school setting. Every Friday is ‘Fun Friday’ in Mrs. Nestor’s Science class. Students are given a task, challenge, game design project or virtual project on which they work collaboratively to achieve a goal. With full inclusion in the classroom, and many diverse student learning levels, reaching all students can be very challenging, but STEM is inclusive to all students and allows everyone to find their voice and communicate it effectively.

I have witnessed harder to educate students blossom, succeed, and feel a sense of accomplishment. STEM classrooms help to bridge gender and ethnic gaps for students by fostering an environment where the sky’s the limit for all students.

As educators, we want all of our students represented in these fields, as they are the future in our global economy. It is our job to encourage  and enhance the skills that are required to lead this charge. This type of pedagogy creates a passion for learning where students are unaware that they are learning and engrains them with well-rounded skills that will help them thrive in today’s technological society. The logical thinking which comes from STEM activities produces mental habits that will help them to be successful in any field.

As the educational community, and society itself, continues to raise expectations for our students, teachers are under an immense amount of pressure to make sure students meet those expectations. I often hear fellow  colleagues comment that they have very little time to implement anything new into their curriculum and STEM takes up too much of their time. This sentiment is understood all across the country.

STEM does take a great deal of time and effort, but its benefits are all-encompassing. When teaching STEM, we are teaching reading, Math, ELA, and History while creating innovative thinkers. Students realize and comprehend the reasoning behind  their work and see the benefits.

Through real world application and hands-on experience, the relevance of STEM becomes more critical to today’s society and our students. Subjects do not take a back seat, it is not a game of tug of war, but a learning strategy to take our students to the next level. By teaching STEM in the classroom, we create innovative thinkers who learn by doing. Fellow Educators, we can’t afford not to teach this way. This should be our ‘best practice’. A facilitator of learning real-world applications, through STEM, is the only way to build our students’ knowledge and watch them soar.

Heather DeLuca Nestor, a 22-year veteran and two-time National Board Certified teacher, implements STEM Activities by incorporating Fun Fridays throughout the school year for 8th grade students. Facilitating designs, challenges, labs, and technology develop students’ skills that foster a love of learning hands-on science by applying it to real world situations.

Wednesdays and Refrigerator Walls: The Impact of Arts Education in a Culture of High-Stakes Assessment

I remember it was always on Wednesdays.

That’s when the all-purpose room in the basement of Marlowe Elementary transformed from cafeteria and gymnasium to art room. I couldn’t multiply two digit by three digit numbers. I was always picked last for the kickball team (“picked” meaning assigned a team because no 5th grader in their right mind was going to voluntarily choose the kid who would strike out in 30 seconds). My handwriting was horrendous, made worse as my left hand smeared my cursive attempts across the page.

Wednesdays were a different story – because I could draw. With colored pencils and paintbrushes at my disposal, I was a different person 45 minutes a week. Mrs. Altman, the art teacher, heaped on the praise when I finished my creations, and I believed every word of it. On Wednesdays, I’d brave the bullies at the back of the school bus, the social studies test I probably didn’t study for, and sitting by myself on the jungle gym at recess – because, for 45 minutes, I was the girl who draws. Art class gave me a sense of purpose.

Fast forward from 1993 to 2017. I went from the girl who draws to the teacher who draws. After a short stint as a communications major, I decided in college to switch to education because I wanted to be a part of people’s stories and successes instead of reporting on them. My aunt was a first grade teacher for 37 years, and memories of how she creatively reached her students – whether through Care Bears or Happy Meal toys – inspired me to make learning a fun, empowering experience, so kids would want to learn and feel they belonged in this crazy, upside down world.

For 17 years, I used many creative endeavors to fight against the increasing hyper focus on assessment, data collection, and progress monitoring in the elementary classroom. Slowly and steadily, each year I was losing myself, as it became next to impossible to be the teacher I wanted to be with the growing demands of test preparation. The worst part was what I saw it doing to my students – the ones with the bad handwriting, questionable study skills, or paddling against the current in math. Labels assigned to kids based on academic performance don’t show their talents outside of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper or clicked answers on a multiple choice test.

I felt as defeated as that fifth grader sitting on the jungle gym, until the last day of school 2017. As I packed up my classroom for the summer, I carefully took down my “refrigerator wall,” where my students hung drawings and knickknacks they made throughout the year. An illustration of a pencil versus a Sharpie, a pencil portrait of my cat Frankie, a sketch of a fighter jet – by the end of the year, the refrigerator wall was an eclectic mix of the talents and interests in my classroom.

The last masterpiece I gingerly took down was a strikingly accurate portrait a student had drawn of myself – right down to the hair part and zebra print cardigan. The student who drew it was a lot like I had been in school – left out, left handed, and looking for a way to fit in the adolescent landscape.

In that moment I had no answers for the growing lack of creative autonomy in the general education classroom, but I did know my next step as an educator.

Where testing and skill recovery programs provide mixed solutions to increasing academic progress, art education consistently shows its ability to increase critical thinking and problem solving skills desired of students. The integration of all subjects allows for the reinforcement of the materials taught in the classroom, all while improving brain function through painting, cutting, weaving, and a multitude of other experiences. Memory building and fine and gross motor skills are developed through art in a way that worksheets can’t compete.

Every child has an invisible sign above their head that reads “Make me feel important.” Many children, especially those with special needs, get to experience a level of success and pride in the art room that won’t be replicated with test scores. The simple act of giving a child something to look forward to and the feeling of accomplishment from creating something out of nothing is a greater equalizer in education than any leveled reader or tiered instruction.

In the aftermath of COVID, we are not only addressing learning gaps but also profound grief. The emotional and social fallout from the pandemic is as great a crisis if not more than the impact on academic instruction. Kids are in as much need of stress relief and coping skills in this moment in time as they are skill building. In an art room, there is hope, peace, and healing intertwined with the joy of making something beautiful in the broken world. They don’t just learn to make art – they learn how to feel and heal.

We can do better in the post-pandemic era of education than we have in the past with an ever increasing reliance on statistical data to drive instruction. The creative, imaginative pursuits in the classroom will captivate student interest in learning and build the empathy needed for tomorrow’s leaders. It is my hope to bring that to eduction as an art teacher – so that every day feels like a Wednesday.

Erin Sponaugle is a National Board Certified Teacher, NNSTOY member, and children’s book author-illustrator. She has taught for 19 years and is the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. Erin currently teaches art at Tomahawk Intermediate School in Hedgesville, West Virginia. She is the host of the Next Chapter for Teachers Podcast, a show focused on teacher self-improvement. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_sponaugle, on Instagram @nextchapterpress, and read her blog at

Literacy as a Tool for Humanity

I grew up as the 4th of 5 children in a home where my parents were avid readers of the daily newspaper.  Reading was part of the culture in my home.  Everyone read.  Sunday mornings went something like this.  My brothers fished out the sports section.  My mother read the obituaries and the editorials.  My father fussed at my brothers about the sports section and shared the editorials with my mother. I was happy to co-read the comics with my youngest brother and as I got older and more sophisticated, the food, arts and entertainment sections were all mine.  I also read books.  Picture books and then novels.  I spent summers making pilgrimages to my public library 2-3 times a week.  This is the way it was for me.  And like most children, I thought this was the way it was for all other children.

When I started teaching, in the neighborhood where I grew up, I learned that was not the case.  I also was shocked to discover that children didn’t live in homes filled with books.  My naivety shocked my system.  I single-handedly made it a mission of my teaching to fill my students’ school days with books.  They would read independently, in pairs, and I would read aloud to them, every single day.  I understood the power of reading to fill the vocabulary gap.  I understood the power of reading as windows so students can see different perspectives.  I understood the power of reading as mirrors so students can see themselves in text.

Over the years, I taught reading language arts from second grade to middle school.  They taught me that they all enjoyed being read to and talking about the characters and the story line, what they had in common with those characters and what was so different.  They shared what they would do if they were in the characters’ shoes.  There were moments of cheers and disdain, of sadness and laughter.  I welcomed it all.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein showed my students how people allow themselves to be used by others.  My then second graders shouted how the boy was not a friend because friends share, not just take.  The novels A Taste of Blackberries and The Bridge to Terabithia provided a safe way to discuss death.  As always, the children would teach me through their resiliency of personal traumas of extended family and all the rituals that their cultures hold dear.  The Hundred Penny Box, with the close-knit relationship between the young boy and his father’s great aunt, and all the complexities of the relationship with his mother spun a tale of family drama that my students were able to pick up on instantly.   A surprising novel, How to Steal a Dog, gave a close up look into a family in transition after divorce.  The children in the story struggled with how their once close friends treated them differently as their lives became less and less comfortable.  As children do, my students were focused on themselves when they were suddenly jolted to think about others.

These texts all offered something different but something the same.  A shared experience as an entry point into conversation.  The listener/reader will all enter in a different place.  This was true for me twenty years ago, ten years ago and still today; people are more alike than different and reading books demonstrates that in varied ways.

In the era of high-stakes teaching and accountability, my administrators were supporters of my using books to teach.  The texts were robust and as I taught, I layered a combination of standards in each lesson.  In my situation, my students’ performances surpassed expectations as I taught to a higher level than the state standards.  My autonomy was not easily earned but I did it teaching novels.

As my career has taken me from the classroom to literacy coaching and beyond, I still push the power of books and reading aloud, even with secondary students.  When I have an opportunity to work with teachers, I share this with them by sharing a few teasers from a few of my favorite books.  What this reading teacher ultimately learned is how culture, humanity and empathy is truly shared through literacy.  I do hope you join me in these discoveries.

A Foundation of Trust

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” -Stephen R. Covey

Teaching is a vulnerable act. The willingness to go into a classroom each day with a prepared lesson and engage with children is a very real definition of courage. This vulnerability is heightened when a teacher is trying to get better at his/her/their craft.

Enter the instructional coach.

As a former coach of teachers and a current consultant to school and system leaders, I have learned about the risks of collaborating with adults to get better at the craft of teaching. It is hard by itself, but is impossible without trust.

I think perhaps what is both equitable and challenging about teachers learning to improve their practice is that when they are being coached, they enter into a similar power imbalance experienced by their own students. It can feel disconcerting. This is one of the reasons why trust is even more important in the coach-teacher relationship.

Trust is the foundation for any significant improvement between people. When it is broken, progress is stalled. When it is strengthened, unbelievable gains can happen. Here are at least three tips to build a culture of trust within a coaching relationship:

  1. Make sure that you are clear with your intentions in coaching, what your biases may be and the directives you have been given. In a school environment, there always may be a level of confidentiality that exists due to pending personnel decisions, but being as honest as possible with people you are supporting is vital. It is always up to your discretion as to what you choose to share, however, just know that the level of your honesty will almost always be connected to the degree of the trust you have with the person you are coaching. Low honesty; low trust account. Low trust account; low progress. Low progress; low outcomes (for students and adults).
  2. Radical Candor. If you see bad instruction, how willing are you to communicate it? How clearly can you communicate it? Candor is complex and is hardly discussed, but it is perhaps an approach that can lead to even greater levels of trust. If I can trust you to be candid – not harsh – then I can start to believe that you have my best interests at heart and will not lie to me about something I am doing that is harmful (which again goes back to tip number one).
  3. One of my core values is clarity. You may have heard the expression that clear is kind. I think it is also true that being clear helps to build credibility. It can help the teacher better understand the changes that he/she/they need to make and the rationale for the particular suggestions. I have heard it said that what people often interpret as resistance is in actuality a response to a lack of clarity.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at Towson University, I had a powerful teacher my sophomore year. In fact, he was a (football) coach. Coach Phil Albert taught me content, but also about life. He had so many sayings. I still remember him saying “keep your shoulder pad down,” as we left his class. I trusted him because he seemed to connect his content and his message with who he believed we could be if we applied both the content of the course and his beliefs about life into our daily habits. I trusted him because he was consistently clear about the greatness he saw inside of us.

I recently learned of his passing. When a great coach passes, his teachings forever live on. In fact, the words of a great coach become the life messages you grow to trust more and more as time goes on. And so, I leave you with a quote from Coach Albert that I have come to trust in that can also help build a culture of deep trust between a coach and a teacher:

“What you compromise to keep, you eventually lose anyway.”

Do not compromise your commitment to building trust with those you support.