Education, From Inside and Outside

Nikitha GraceTwo years ago, while I was Head of School at James River Day School, I paid a visit to a Montessori school out in Bedford County, Virginia. While I was visiting the school, I learned about an international non-profit organization that provides many educational and leadership trainings globally, including one of its key programs called LivingSideBySide®. I was intrigued to learn about their successful pilot program in Kyrgyzstan, an area struggling with interethnic tension. As I learned more about the program, I was struck by how appropriate it would be for American teachers and students. It trains teachers in communication, dialogue, self-awareness, and community engagement skills; the teachers then train their students. The program builds capacity in the entire school community!

As a school administrator, I was enthusiastic to learn about a professional development program designed to strengthen skills for both teachers and students. As I reviewed the curriculum, I got very excited. As a teacher and administrator with 30 years’ experience, I had never seen such a thoughtful program. Now that I have retired from James River Day School, I am volunteering for Legacy International, the nonprofit organization that developed and offers the LivingSideBySide® training. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 make it clear that the United States needs peace building programs! I am dedicated to helping American teens learn effective social and emotional skills, and LSBS offers excellent training to develop these skills, extending and expanding them into leadership and community engagement activities.

My intention is to write a monthly blog this year, based on my knowledge of the specific needs in schools at certain times of the year, where the LSBS training would provide immediate and effective support for teachers and their students. Look for the next installment of Education, From Inside and Outside, in October on how LSBS can help teachers build strong relationships with students and parents!

What does it mean to be well-educated?

8th Leadership 020A number of possible answers flood my brain, but one that I come back to over and over again is, “Know thyself.” If we are asleep to ourselves, we cannot offer our best selves to the world. Education must offer us the opportunity to learn our deepest strengths, fears, short-comings, talents and passions.

Being well-educated used to mean that you had read a lot of books and you knew a lot of facts. Today those activities remain important to education, but they are not sufficient to be considered truly well educated. Today a well-educated person knows how to manage information, how to know what is true and what is false, how to work with people who don’t look, talk or act like you, how to solve novel problems and how to balance work with health and family. A well-educated person knows enough history to be a thoughtful citizen and enough science to be a wise consumer. A well-educated person knows that manners are what keep us civilized.

Education depends on teachers. How do we know them?

Teachers are those who can build connections with others as they travel this path of learning.

Teachers are those who support others when they falter at a challenge and need someone to hold their elbow to steady them.

Teachers are those who celebrate others’ greatest accomplishments – the winning shot, the hard-earned mastery of an equation, the first shoelace tied, a challenging book read and understood, a paper revised until it shines, the ability to tackle a problem with confidence, or the moment of standing on stage and delivering a memorized line.

Teachers are those who know that learning is for all of us, forever and ever.

Teachers may be parents, friends, books, ourselves, events witnessed, grandparents, and, especially, those adults who commit to going to school every day to create a safe community for children where they can learn how to use their minds, their hands and their hearts to build, to invent, to imagine, to reflect, to solve, to read, to care, to remember and to practice empathy and respect.


Teachable Moments

2nd Gr Cox 001Teachers pay attention to teachable moments, those moments when conflict arises, someone makes a mistake, someone demonstrates grace under fire, someone recognizes a paradox or spots an opportunity. When you work with children, you spend your day noticing such moments; you seek them out because they are how the world supports your work. Sam trips, and the response of his classmates shows their capacity for and skill at caring. Susan and Sally both want the same seat, and their next actions show their competence with problem solving and compromise. Stan makes a mistake at the board, and the teacher’s response shows her skill at making things safe and clarifying the problem, so Stan can find his mistake and learn from it. Teachers are sensitive to the manifold opportunities for teaching in the moment.

As a school leader, I also seek to discover the teachable moment, with students, of course, but also with teachers and parents. In these moments, we may all grow. When I meet with eighth grade students at Leadership Council (all students are welcome, but each must write a letter to me nominating himself or herself and giving evidence of his or her leadership potential), I listen to their description of their experiences at school. I tell them that I do not live in their daily lives, exactly – they are living in ‘kid world’ – but in my own, parallel adult world, and that I need them to tell me what it is like to be one of them. If they trust me enough, they will tell me where their problems are: when homework is overwhelming, when teacher communication feels unclear or unkind, when a student is trying to gain power by being unkind to others, even when the lunch line isn’t working efficiently. These are all teachable moments, and together, we move from identifying them to figuring out what we can learn from them, what the students can change in the world and what they can change in themselves.

Eighth grade students at James River also have opportunities to serve as tutors and mentors to younger students, simply by wanting to do so and being willing to give up some of their study time before or after school, or during study hall. They go to work with Kindergarten, first, second, third, or fourth graders who might need homework coaching, buddy reading, notebook organization, study skills, and they pass along what they have learned from their teachers and peers. They find teachable moments with the younger children and share their wisdom.

All students in grades five-eight belong to small, multi-age group advisories, which meet every day after lunch for study hall. Older students set the example for younger students in organization, homework completion, studying for tests and quizzes, and time management. They remember what it was like to be younger. They remember struggling to learn how to keep up with something or how challenging it was to learn how to take notes, and they share their experience with the younger children, taking the moment when the child is really ready to change something in his or her behavior, and then guiding him or her toward success.

I believe in school as a learning community, where each of us has myriad opportunities to gain knowledge about ourselves and the world around us, every single day. When I speak with students, teachers and parents, I am listening for their deepest selves: what they fear, what they wish, what satisfies them, and then I am looking for that teachable moment when my listening and reflecting can help them learn how to move forward. The teachable moment can be painful and powerful, but at heart, it is joyous because it is about fulfilling potential in the present.


School/Home Communication in the Digital Age

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Schools are in the midst of radical upheaval due to technological innovation. The bastions of writing neatly on lined paper are facing a “paperless” future. The time-honored tradition of students keeping a hand-written agenda or planner, neatly copying each assignment from the board in the classroom, and then checking off each assignment as it’s completed, no longer reflects a world in which people keep their to-do lists electronically. As teachers begin to use electronic classrooms to create and post assignments, information becomes immediately available to students. As students begin to use electronic calendars and to-do lists to keep track of independent work deadlines, they no longer need to carry an agenda, but only need to keep track of their electronic device.

Some schools are now using software that allows parents to see each teacher’s gradebook — every assignment, as well as every test and quiz grade. I have heard parents say that they like having instant access to their children’s information. They know immediately if their child missed a homework assignment or bombed a quiz. Teachers and students, however, find this to be stressful, as you can imagine. When parents expect immediate feedback on their children’s work and question why their child earned a specific score, that requires teachers to place grading and communicating with parents at the very top of their priority lists, as opposed to planning or reflecting on the day’s lesson. When parents can micromanage their child’s homework and performance, students lose the opportunity to learn from making mistakes and managing their own day-to-day work.

I question the benefit of instantaneous feedback and heavy accountability for both teachers and students. I am concerned that parents having complete, instant knowledge of everything about their child’s school experience puts assessment performance too high on the list of priorities and robs children of independent learning opportunities. I want students in middle school, especially, to learn how to be responsible for their own to-do lists, to be able to make the mistake of not planning ahead, to feel the disappointment of earning a poor grade resulting from insufficient preparation. If parents always know every single thing their children need to prepare, and then ensure that the preparation happens, children will never learn from their mistakes or lack of preparation. I worry that parents’ insatiable need for information about their children’s progress actually hinders that progress.

1st Gr 017

Discovering the New Literacy

I just read a blog series by Kathy Schrock on “literacies in the digital age,” and I’ve adapted it for use at our faculty fall professional development meeting. This is one of the most useful summaries of digital literacies that I’ve seen to date. I want the teachers to read about these literacies to see where and how they already incorporate them into the curriculum and to speculate on where and how they can add guidance for students to learn about them, when it’s meaningful and appropriate. Here’s my adaptation/abridgement:

Kathy Schrock’s Discovery Education Blog (Katch of the Month) on Literacies for the Digital Age. (excerpts from September 14-June 15;

(Ms. Schrock writes a monthly blog on educational topics for Discovery Education. She did a series last year to identify and help define “literacies for the digital age.” Her choices are interesting, and each blog contains a plethora of useful information on how to teach that specific literacy. I highly recommend the series! Mary)


  1. Economic/financial literacy

Economic literacy, often called financial literacy, according to Atomic Learning, “targets the importance of making appropriate economic choices on a personal level, and understanding the connection personal, business, and governmental decisions have on individuals, society, and the economy”. The report of the NASBE Commission on Financial and Investor Literacy also offers a useful definition: “Financial literacy is defined as the ability to read, analyze, manage and communicate about the personal financial conditions that affect material well-being. It includes the ability to discern financial choices, discuss money and financial issues without (or despite) discomfort, plan for the future and respond competently to life events that affect everyday financial decisions, including events in the general economy”.

  1. Visual literacy

Visual literacy, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, “is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.”

  1. Media literacy

There are many areas of media literacy.  Media Literacy Project has a wonderful document that presents the components of media literacy in a straightforward fashion and includes useful lists of the various concepts of this literacy. Their definition of media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media messages of all kinds.” They go on to state that media literacy skills can help students–

  • Understand how media messages create meaning
  • Identify who created a particular media message
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the “tools of persuasion” used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation and lies
  • Discover the part of the story that’s not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, beliefs and values
  • Create and distribute our own media messages
  • Become advocates for change in our media system

The modern study of media literacy is not new. The Museum of Hoaxes site includes timelines of historical media hoaxes from as early as 1874 and photography hoaxes from 1861 and everything in-between! The ability to make a viewer or reader believe a fabricated story still exists today. And, as technology evolves. there are many more ways to fool the viewer with mash-ups, video and audio editing, and fabrication of images.

  1. Historical literacy

The Hyperhistory site from the National Centre for History Education in Australia is a wonderful site for learning about all aspects of history education, including historical literacy. They have a teacher’s guide which contains information about the nature of historical learning, historical literacy, history education and ICT, and more. Their overview of the key elements of historical literacy include:

  • Events of the past: knowing and understanding historical events
  • Narratives of the past: having time to think about how the past can be explained through a variety of perspectives
  • Research skills; gathering, analyzing, and using artifacts, documents, and graphics
  • The language of history: interpreting words in history
  • Historical concepts: understanding the cause and motivation of historical events and to understand events from the point of view of participants
  • ICT understandings: how to identify bias, authority, and reliability in online information
  • Making connections: thinking about the present and the past
  • Contention and contestability: understanding about debate and discourse in a historical perspective
  • Representative expression: understanding history through art and media of the past (and visual media literacies are important here)
  • Moral judgements in history: dealing with the moral and ethical components of historical events
  • Applied science in history: facial reconstruction, computer imaging, DNA testing, forensic science, satellite mapping, etc.
  • Historical explanation: the ability to reason historically based on a foundation of evidence
  1. Numeracy

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts. This includes, among other things, mastering of basic math, number sense, computation, measurement, and statistics

The document entitled “Standards for Mathematical Practice” provides an extensive overview of the “varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students”. These standards “describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years”. It is about being able to take their mathematical skill set and use higher order thinking skills to evaluate, experiment, and reason. The Standards for Mathematical Process are:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them: students analyze, conjecture, monitor and evaluate, transform, and conceptualize
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively: students decontextualize and contextualize as well as creating a representation of the problem
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others: students can justify, reason inductively, and compare and defend
  • Model with mathematics: students use their math skills to solve problems in everyday life
  • Use appropriate tools strategically: students can pick the appropriate tool to help them
  • Attend to precision: students label and present their mathematics in a way that make it understandable to others
  • Look for and make use of structure: students can recognize mathematical patterns
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning: students notice when calculations are repeated and use that information

In order to develop these levels of expertise in students, educators need to be able to connect the mathematical practices to the mathematical content in mathematics instructions. There are various ways to help this happen. There are the commercial textbooks and online products that can support student mathematical understanding. There are online mathematics informational sites to provide students with another “voice” to help them understand the basics a bit better and there are stand-alone software programs and apps to provide additional practice.

  1. Data literacy

According to Dr. Milo A. Schield, students must be able to read, interpret and evaluate information. They must also be able to analyze, interpret and evaluate statistics. And they must be able to gather, assess, process, manipulate, summarize, and communicate data. These three skills collectively comprise data literacy.

One way to have students gain data literacy skills is the student creation of an infographic as a creative assessment. This assessment process includes practice with the information, visual, and computer tool literacies, too. An infographic is a visual representation of data that allows the viewer to understand a topic, get another view, or persuade them to research further. Infographics fall naturally into categories such as statistical infographics, timeline infographics, process infographics, and research-based infographics.

In the Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, a McGraw-Hill publication by Tim Harrower and Julie Elman, they provide some thoughts on why one might use an infographic.

  • To complete the “story” for those who are interested
  • To draw in viewers from those who might skip reading the information
  • To pull out salient numbers, details, and comparisons
  • To clarify with statistics, geographical detail, or trends
  • To help insure the viewer “gets it”
  1. Information literacy

Information literacy forms the foundation for all of the other literacies. Students need to know how to state their information need, search for it effectively, evaluate what they find for validity, and utilize the information they find.

There are many information literacy models available and many include a component of the best ways to conduct research on the Web. Let’s look at one of these processes.

In order to begin their research, students need be able to ask the right question. Of course, the overall context of the research will be determined by the unit being studied in class, but there are some standard information literacy steps students can use to develop the query they will research in order to gather their information.

  • Students should create a list of keywords about the topic
  • They should then create a question that is not too broad or too narrow.
  • Students should list the places for gathering their information. This may include the Web, subscription databases, or experts in the field.
  • They should conduct some cursory research to make sure there will be information available for their topic.
  • If necessary, they should re-work their question.
  • Once they begin the research in earnest, students need to become familiar with the critical evaluation of information in order to determine the credibility, validity, and authority of the information they locate.
  • Students also need to gather their assets and remember to cite their sources.
  • NoodleTools has a wonderful flowchart-like, hyperlinked page, Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need, which allows students to consider the type of thing they are looking for (i.e. controversial topic, background information, primary sources, etc.) and leads them to specialized search engines and directories to use.


The development of the essential question that will guide the student through the research process is also an information literacy skill. How do you engage students with questions and, at the same time, encourage them to think about using this technique when determining their information need?

Grant Wiggins describes what an essential question entails in an article on his Authentic Education site. Wiggins states essential questions…

  • cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content
  • provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
  • stimulate vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons
  • spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences
  • naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

Teaching students how to develop an essential question to articulate their information need can help.  ASCD offers a chapter from the McTighe and Wiggins book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, on their site, which provides a practical way for teachers to learn the best ways to create these questions, and can help you explain the process to students.

Having students look at samples of essential questions can be useful, too.  Here are some resources to help.

  • Each day, the Essential Questionssite presents visitors with a random list of twenty-five essential questions.
  • The TeachThought blog has a giant list of essential questions by broad subject area, such as social justice, adversity, conflict, and utopia/dystopia.
  • Check out for lots of questions on nonfiction topics.
  1. Tool literacy

Tool literacy, the ability to manage and create information, is all about using software tools to help support the other literacies. This is sometimes called computer literacy or technology literacy.

Managing information using online tools in a digital space is an important skill. Here are some quick tips that can help students (and you) manage their information overload using Web clipping tools, curation tools, RSS and newsreaders, and synchronous communication and backchannel tools.

  1. Civic literacy

Civic literacy incorporates the use of 21st century skills for staying informed about local, regional, and worldwide events in order to be able to participate and make informed decisions. As with any current news and information, students must be on the lookout for bias and omission of relevant information. These skills can be practiced as outlined in the Information and Digital Literacy blog post in this series.

10. Global literacy

Global literacy, according to a professional development publication by Atomic Learning, “incorporates the use of 21st century skills and tools for understanding and addressing issues that have global impact. This includes raising awareness about cultural differences, demonstrating tolerance and respect for differing opinions, religions, and lifestyles, and learning to work collaboratively with others.”

   11. Health literacy

The World Health Organization’s motto is “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And, according to UNESCO, infusing “health learning in subjects across the curriculum should not be a substitute for a comprehensive, sequential course of health education, but doing so can significantly support the learning that takes place in a health class.”

Youth Leadership

Yesterday as a member, I attended the Optimist Club luncheon. The program was a recognition of Youth Leaders for Neighborhood Excellence. In our town, the City Parks and Recreation Department staffs six different Neighborhood Centers where students can go after school. We are also fortunate to have two non-profit centers that provide similar services: the Boys and Girls Club and the Jubilee Family Center. The centers offer well-supervised and staffed preschool, senior, summer, and school age programs.

The students who were recognized were nominated by the staff from each center. The youth demonstrate a strong degree of volunteerism and achievement at the various community centers and are recognized for their family responsibilities, moral character, school/community activities, services provided, life goals, and/or obstacles overcome. As I listened to the letters of nomination and watched the recipients who stood proudly before their parents and community leaders, I was struck by the kinds of leadership they had shown in their lives: raising younger siblings, being responsible for their entire family’s laundry, involuntarily inspiring all around them, seeking the welfare of others over themselves, influencing others for good.

Then I thought about my own school. We seek to create leaders. We give our students opportunities to open car doors, help with recycling, be older buddies to younger classmates, to serve on the eighth-grade Leadership Council. We want our students to demonstrate the same qualities of consistency, respect, and caring that students from the neighborhood centers demonstrate. I believe that adults hope all children will develop these qualities and be recognized for them, and I am so proud to see children from all neighborhoods showing the world the kind of leadership that will bring our world peace and life satisfaction.