Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Holiday Stress: Why do Students Fall Apart Right Before the Holidays?

We know that our students navigate challenges throughout the year. However, behavior and experience show us that holiday breaks seem to be a more intense time.

Holiday breaks can amplify situational protective and risk factors present in our student’s lives. Risk factors are characteristics associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes. Protective factors provide buffering. Protective factors are associated with a reduced likelihood of negative outcomes or lower a risk factor’s impact. Risk and protective factors come from public health.
The supports and consistency of school pause, and daily life sets in during a time of heightened, festive attention. For our students, holiday beaks may mean:
  • More exposure to family dynamics (both positive and negative) 
  • Family dynamics may increase in intensity
  • Parenting or visitation plans may be adjusted or changed
  • Travel, hosting, or visiting bring different places and faces
  • Schedule shifts that increase time with others or reduce time with others
  • Concerns or adjustments related to finances and food

       Balancing expectations and reality, and navigating the comparisons among peers and friends
The time before holiday breaks is a time of preoccupation. Who can know if joy or worry, or both, fuel student anticipation? For some families, this is an exciting time that promises celebration. A time that some of our students don’t want to end. However, for other students this is a time of uncertainty and unmet expectations, a time where anticipation turns from excitement into anxiety, and for a few anxiety shifts to despair. Even adults may find themselves fluctuating between feeling excited, stressed, and anxious. 

The vast difference between the adult and student experience, however, is that adults are the decision-makers of the changes. Students are along for the ride with little-to-no control in the frenzy of break. It is understandable that our students who feel the least amount of control during the days leading to break might begin to seek a sense of control through a variety of behaviors.

As educators and trusted adults, we can use the time leading up to holiday break as protective and reassuring. We can dedicate ourselves to inclusion, working to keep our students with us, with the class, and within the school. Keeping students close may help them feel secure in a time of magnified expectation and anticipation.

Coping with anticipation and managing stress are lifelong skills. As is the development of coping through anxiety and painful experiences. To be resilient, to develop trust, and weather tough times happens with practice. Holiday break is an opportunity for us to support students in developing and coping with uncertainty and excitement, and all the feelings in-between.

This article was contributed by:
Mandy Paradise, M.Ed.
Project AWARE Program Supervisor
Secondary Education & K12 Supports
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)
Ph: 360-725-6248 | Cell: 360-402-3580

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How do we Support the Whole Educator?

Each morning, my own kids enter the gates of their Tacoma Hilltop elementary school and they are greeted with three prominent phrases painted on a cement wall outside the building: “Care for Yourself, Care for Each Other and Care for This Place.” While at first glance you cannot help, but want to embrace these words, you wonder if these words were part of a student art project that started and ended just as quickly as they were painted or if these words have life and a true context beyond that static wall. When you dig a little deeper you realize that “Care for Yourself, Care for Each Other and Care for This Place is the school’s mantra. Kids own these words and the staff have embraced the culture surrounding them. Even my kindergarten son has told his younger brother that, “we need to care for each other and care for this place.”

I suspect that the school’s mantra and its culture was spurred through Tacoma Public Schools’ Whole Child Initiative, which has redefined how our schools addressed the social emotional needs of students. Prior to the inception of the Whole Child Initiative in 2013 our students were struggling and we had a difficult time responding to their social emotional needs.

It has been five years since Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) launched the Whole Child Initiative. We have been nationally recognized for this work and our kids are better supported. They are safer, healthier, better challenged and more engaged. Today however, in the path of a national teacher shortage and a polarized society we are now asking, what about are educators?, Do they feel supported?, Are they safe?,  Are they healthy?, Are they engaged?  

In the last month alone, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) shared survey results of 5,000 educators. 61% reported that work is “always” or “often stressful” (Toppo, 2017). The article went on to read that, “More than half of the educators point out their mental health is an issue: 58% said their mental health was “not good” for seven or more of the previous 30 days. A similar survey in 2015 found just 34% of respondents felt the same.”

In addition to this trend of educator stress, our teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. According to an article published by the Washington Post, (Strauss, 2015) and research from Richard Ingersoll a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, 40-50% of teachers leave the profession by the end of their fifth year.

It has become more apparent than ever that we need educators at the top of their game. The research alone suggests that our employees need more support. Furthermore, healthier employees equal better results. Dr. Anastasia Snelling from American University in DC and a leading expert on teacher health and wellness said, “A healthier teacher workforce translates into less absenteeism, higher retention rates, and improved productivity,” (Snelling & Stevenson, 2013).  

Because of this need, TPS district level leadership began to ask questions. What does adult support look like in TPS? How can we develop a system and a culture that responds to employee needs? One critical question though emerged to the top and ironically, it was the same question we were asking about our students five years go.

How do we support the Whole Educator? We began to rally. In our first attempt at answering this question, we launched the Whole Educator Initiative and essentially replicated the Whole Child tenants by focusing our supports on employee health, safety, and engagement. 

TPS started this work by developing a one stop internal web site that allows TPS employees to access several resources to support them. These resources include, health and wellness options, a variety of professional development opportunities, and community partner information to name a few. Over the last three months, the Whole Educator Initiative has also been a staple at employee events across TPS. A Whole Educator Academy was held in mid-August of this year drawing in more than 500 teachers to attend this two-day conference. Teachers could choose to attend a variety of sessions that supported their work in the classroom and beyond. Our second phase to this initiative included developing the metrics to measure employee safety, health and engagement as well as encouraging employees to get active every day.

Most recently in our schools, some principals have taken on the Whole Educator Initiative and made it their own. Employees in these schools have reported being more energized and motived to attend work each day. One specific example, is a newly established spin class at one of our comprehensive high schools. Spin class participants gather after school in the gym and spin for at least 20 minutes each day. Other schools have created time in the main office to socialize and engage in collegial celebrations prior to the first bell.

While we have much more work to do around the Whole Educator Initiative to fully address the needs of all our employees, it is a start and we have begun to answer our original critical question, How do we support the Whole Educator? It is our belief that once each employee feels safe, healthy and engage they will truly thrive. In turn, so will the students we serve.

Forrest Griek, Ed.D.
Director of Labor Relations & Whole Educator Support
Tacoma Public Schools

Snelling, A. & Stevenson, M. (2017, March 10). Helping Teachers Get Healthier. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
Strauss, V. (2015, June 12). Why so many teachers leave –and how to get them to stay.  Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
Toppo, G. (2017, October 30). Survey: Teacher’ mental health declining amid job stress.  Retrieved November 08, 2017, from

Thursday, October 5, 2017

How Do We Strengthen Democracy Through Media Literacy Education?

There’s a lot of debate about the role of technology in schools. From educator access, to student devices, to testing modality, we can’t get enough when it comes to the pros and cons of technology in classrooms. I think the debate needs to evolve. Today’s educators are faced with a mighty task that grows in complexity on an almost daily cycle: teaching their students how to identify false information, recognize credible sources, think critically, and fact-check. As researchers, journalists, and content consumers are slammed by the era of “fake news,” the rising generation must be able to discern fact from fiction.

Perhaps just as critically, they must also be able to maintain an open mind in an era of smart devices that allow our children (and the rest of us) to craft a worldview that is wholly reinforced by the customization of our almighty apps. From news feeds, to music, to entertainment, to social media platforms—our students today can craft an entire life of messages, values, and opinions that reinforce what they already believe. Like that comforting baby blanket we had as a child, our students can wrap themselves in a digital blanket that rarely asks them to consider different opinions or ideas, and almost never challenges them to defend their ideas, their biases, or their world views. We are in an age of ubiquitous information that compels educators to think more about the learning process, information sources, and critical thinking.

A 2016 study (Domonoske 2016) left Stanford researchers “shocked” by how many middle school, high school, and college students were unable to effectively evaluate the credibility of sources online. The researchers called the results “bleak” and a “threat to democracy.”

There has never been a greater need for media literacy—the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media” (Huft 2016). How do we, as educators, integrate media literacy into our everyday practice? And how do we get our students to a place where they can confidently (and correctly) verify the validity of the media they absorb?

There are some excellent resources available for all grade levels to teach media literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education offers resources and best practices for educators, and the Center for Media Literacy (CML) also boasts a variety of educational resources to meet a range of classroom needs. In their Media Literacy Toolkit, the CML proposes five key questions every student should ask themselves when consuming media:

1.      Who created this message?
2.      What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
3.      How might different people understand this message differently from me?
4.      What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in; or omitted from, this message?
5.      Why is this message being sent?

At OSPI, we are currently working with stakeholders to update our state’s educational technology learning standards, and we are aiming to have the new standards published in February 2018. A draft of the standards, which was recently approved by the statewide steering committee, centers on technology literacy and technology fluency. The draft standards aim to have every Washington student graduate as a/an:

·       Empowered learner;
·       Digital citizen;
·       Knowledge constructor;
·       Innovative designer;
·       Computational thinker;
·       Creative communicator; and
·       Global collaborator.

A 2016 survey showed that 50 percent of teenagers feel addicted to their mobile devices, and almost 80 percent say they check their devices at least hourly (Common Sense Media). There is no stopping the expansion of media consumption via mobile devices. So we are left with the enormous challenge of teaching our students to think critically and to maintain an open mind so the promise of a broad liberal arts education is not snuffed out by the narrowing of thought and opinion due to the ease of customization and self-selection our devices now provide.

Today’s educators face a much different (and arguably more difficult) undertaking when it comes to teaching the next generation how to consume and tailor media in a thoughtful and engaged way. Together we will have to be intentional about this work in every subject and at every grade level.

Submitted By:
Chris Reykdal
Superintendent of Public Instruction

Katy Payne
Master of Public Administration Candidate
The Evergreen State College                               

“Dealing with Devices: The Parent-Teen Dynamic.” Common Sense Media, 03 May 2016.

Domonoske, Camila. “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds.” National Public Radio (NPR), 23 Nov. 2016.

“Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry.” Center for Media Literacy, n.d.

Huft, Susan. “Media Literacy is Critical.” International Literacy Association, 16 Dec. 2016.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Budgets are Tight. Needs are Great. Why Should I Invest in Parents to Best Impact Children?

We see it in every kindergarten classroom at the start of each school year. Some children come prepared and ready while others don’t have the skill set or attention span to take in all the rich instruction available to them in our schools. We offer support and encouragement to shore up that disparity, but the 32 million word gap is too wide a divide to be closed in the best of classrooms. According to Jim Trelease a teacher would need to speak 100 words a second for 900 hours to make up for the 32 million word mark that some students are lacking.

How can you make changes in the lives of elementary students when they walk in the door so far behind? That’s a question for another author. What I want to talk with you about is how we can close that gap and significantly improve the number of children who walk in the classroom ready on day one.

It starts with a simple premise. Parents are their child’s first and most influential teachers, and in South Kitsap School District we invest in those parents long before school starts through a program called READY! for Kindergarten.
READY! is a lifestyle approach and provides parents with the tools and knowledge they need to prepare their children for kindergarten. Parents leave, not with a checklist of things they must do, but with fresh ideas and research-based activities that they can ‘play with a purpose’ with their child for 10 minutes a day and read with their child for 20 minutes a day.

READY! empowers parents. Instead of telling parents, “Give me your child. I know what’s best for them.”  READY! says, “No one else can or should care more about your child than you do. We’re going to deepen your toolbox, showing you what your child is capable of and how to assess his or her progress, so you can steer them to the next steps.” Tara, a first time attendee, put it this way,  “My sister-in-law is a preschool teacher. Her daughter knows all her colors and all her numbers and all her letters and now I feel like the playing field has been leveled. Now I know what I can do to help my child.”

READY! doesn’t cost, it pays. The easiest and most cost effective way to change a child’s academic trajectory is from birth to age 5. That means fewer interventions because children who come to school ready for the first day are set on a path of success that impacts their entire lives. Of course there is some capital, but you can’t match the returns! READY!’s best work doesn’t happen during the 23 hours spent in workshops over five years. The magic happens when parents and children spend 30 minutes a day reading and playing with a purpose. Those minutes multiply to 913 joy-filled hours of preparing for school.

The result? Washington State University did an independent study of READY! in Kennewick: In fall 2008, 79% of children whose parents attended READY! classes met the standard for kindergarten, compared to 55% with parents who didn’t regardless of family income.

Because budgets are tight and needs are great, we can’t afford to not invest in parents for the good of our children.

Submitted By:
Melissa Pittenger
READY! for Kindergarten Coordinator for South Kitsap School District
and Bethany Lutheran Preschool Power-Hour Director

Monday, August 7, 2017

Why is attending the Trauma Informed Practice Summit by Kirsten Souers Valuable?

As Principal of an all kindergarten school (averaging over 500 little ones”), our vision statement reads Sun Valley Elementary….The Foundation for Success!”  This not only means academically, but emotionally and socially as well.  Don’t we all want to believe that every one of our students is capable of succeeding in all aspects, no matter what grade level?  At Sunnyside School District, we are Learning Today for a Brighter Tomorrow!”  I like to think this not only connects to our students but what about professional learning for our staff?  Students today are facing more trauma and adverse childhood experiences than ever before and a new understanding is imperative to their success.   

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend the Trauma Informed Practice Summit” featuring Kristin Souers, Mental Health Consultant.  As we start the new school year, we have already identified students with behaviors coming forward and we anticipate new behaviors that we have never seen before, either from returning students or students new to our building. 
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As mentioned at the summit, trauma is related to exceptional experiences.  It does not only pertain to one event, but can encompass powerful and/or dangerous events over time that can overwhelm the child’s capacity to cope and learn.  We know that some of our students come to us experiencing the loss of a family member or witnessing a tragic death, and we also have those students who come to us on a daily basis wondering if there will be food on the table or a place to sleep for the night.  Some wonder if their parent is going to jail for the second and third time, and when they will see their mom or dad again.  It wasn’t far into my educational career, I realized that even these five year olds have seen or experienced situations that I have never seen in my lifetime.  My heart breaks for them.

Unfortunately, the numbers continue to rise for students of all age groups with these types of experiences that develop into physical, mental or emotional needs.  Severe behaviors are escalating.  How can we help them?  How can I team with my staff and deepen our understanding of the prevalence of childhood and adolescence trauma and the effect it has on their ability to learn?  How can I support my staff and move them to have a heart of compassion and understanding for that one student” while struggling to continue to provide a safe and learning environment for the other 20 plus students in the classroom?  I can tell you that attending the Trauma Informed Practice Summit” was extremely valuable. 

Attending the summit, Kristen provided strategies and ideas to create and empower a culture and learning environment that supports all of our students and those with specific behavior needs.  Information was delivered regarding the lack of brain development from exposure to continued stress and/or experiencing trauma. 

Learning about students who flip their lids” opened our eyes to new understanding of being ready or not ready to learn.  And, we learned, how we ourselves set the tone for the day…what is the message we relate to those children”, the ones who are struggling and we are having difficulty with?
When I returned home from the summit, fortuitously I had mail that tied to my new learning and reinforced my already held beliefs about having compassion for ALL children.  My mail contained a statement quoted by Lady Bird Johnson that said, Children are likely to live up to what you believe in them.”  I thought to myself, do we value or de-value our students when they walk through the front door of our building or through the front door of our classrooms…the door that might be their only safe” place?  Am I accepting or do I give up on them leaving them feel even more deflated than when they walked through that door?  We have ample opportunities to provide students to view and experience situations differently, in a more trusting and positive way.  It is up to us.
As I sat there amongst a team of counselors, administrators, teachers and community partners, I couldn’t help but take this further to reflecting not only on the students in my building, but what about my staff?  This subject of trauma is one that can also affect our colleagues and employees, giving us insight for those that can be difficult to work with.  As we strive to achieve a positive and successful environment for everyone, educating ourselves about trauma and exceptional experiences can be one of our greatest professional learning’s. 

I am grateful that this fall our district is providing training for all staff on the effects of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences.  We all know in our hearts that there is always something behind the behavior.  You can learn from Kristen the power of de-escalation, ways to be pro-active, and ways to connect and support your students (yes and even staff!) and give them a caring, safe and comfortable arena so the learning can take place.  As we embark on this new learning and understanding together, let us help our students who experience the darker moments to enjoy a brighter tomorrow!

Submitted By:
Jeri Paulakis, Principal
Sun Valley Elementary/Sunnyside School District

Kirsten Souers will be providing Trauma Informed Practice Summit, October 27, 2017 at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.  Register Here

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Reflections on Senior Year: Should We "Just Keep Swimming?"


Senior year: a time for learning, a time for memories; the last hoorah of adolescence. As the dusty cars from summer road trips bustle into the school parking lot, students are reunited with hugs and handshakes, some thrilled and some anxious to begin their very last year of high school. As the weary-eyed students compare schedules, the sun slowly creeps above the houses of a familiar town and Senior Sunrise, the first bonding experience of senior year, is complete. Walking into the school, the students know deeply within their thoughts that this is not only a year for excitement and memories, but also one last year to challenge themselves in their high school career. The most difficult part of this year is managing the tricky balance between Friday Night Lights and physics homework, sports and submitting essays minutes before midnight, and college applications and Carpe Diem. If one can maintain this perfect balance, their senior year aspirations will be absolutely fulfilled.

Ryan Krout & Matthew Hickey Seniors & Student Leaders
Senior year poses many questions for students eager to graduate. Some of the most pressing may include: Is “senioritis” a treatable illness? Who is this guy “FAFSA” that my guidance counselor keeps talking about? And the most commonly asked question, how many long, arduous days until we can finally walk across the stage at graduation and receive our diplomas? By the end of the year, every senior will know the answers to these questions. Throughout the year, the challenges of applying to college, completing senior projects, and staying involved with clubs, activities, and friends allow seniors to learn valuable skills and lessons before they embark on their new endeavors following graduation. For those who have not yet experienced the struggles that senior year presents, I can offer a small, but extremely valuable piece of advice. I would like to comment on one of our favorite childhood characters, Dory from Finding Nemo, and her words that many seniors internalize in their last efforts to finish the year, “Just keep swimming”. These words have never seemed so fitting, but Dory’s mentality is just plain wrong. Don’t just keep swimming, but rather swim deeper into harsher waters, all the while noticing and enjoying your surroundings during the journey. Don’t just get through senior year, thrive during senior year. Take the hard math class. Try out for the sport you’ve always wanted to play. Tell your crush that you like them. Senior year is not just about academics and SAT scores, it is also about living; becoming the best person you can be and making lasting memories while doing it.

Ask any adult and they will tell you that some of their most unforgettable memories are derived from senior year. Skip day, weekend getaways with friends, and spirit weeks are few of the best and brightest reminiscences that this year has to offer. As a senior, you have the opportunity to grow and learn from challenges, but also to have fun. Don’t just keep swimming, stop and look around; take in the precious moments before they’re forever gone and only encapsulated in yearbooks and class photos. The last year of high school, in fact, of adolescence as a whole, is one that is filled with emotion, comradery, and many, many “lasts”. If you don’t truly appreciate these things in the moment, you might look back ten years from now, wishing that you could have done it all differently.

All in all, senior year is what you make of it. Finding the perfect balance between overcoming challenges and creating lasting memories is the greatest task that you will encounter upon entering the doors on the first day of the last year. However, those that strive to obtain this balance head-on will know that their senior year was not squandered, but rather, that their last year of high school was the best it could possibly be; the only thing one could wish for when closing this chapter and opening a new one.   

Ryan Krout and Matthew Hickey
Seniors and Student Leaders @ Washougal High School
Washougal School District

Friday, May 19, 2017

Would Cinderella feel safe, cared about and successful in your school?

I recently had the opportunity to see the Broadway performance of “Cinderella”. It wasn’t the Disney performance that I remembered from my childhood where the girl is saved by her prince. In this version, Cinderella is a resilient girl who experienced trauma, abuse and loss.  Instead of being saved, Cinderella saves the prince and advocates for the poor within her community.

Throughout the performance, the commonalities between Cinderella and the students who continuously impact my practice were huge. Unlike Cinderella, students who are impacted by trauma don’t usually have a fairy godmother to wave her wand and make their dreams come true. Our students have a different type of fairy godmother that comes in the form of a teacher, para educator, secretary, bus driver, counselor or social worker, recess supervisor, administrator, or many others within our learning environments. While we don’t have a magic wand, we have something better, the gift of relationship.

I often ask myself, what protective factors influence circumstances in which “all” children are learning ready? How do we as educators increase these protective factors that lead to resilience. For many of our students, school is their only protective factor. In a culture in which many educators feel overwhelmed by initiatives, how do we support the work that must be done?  PBIS, trauma informed practice, social emotional learning, disproportionate discipline, and restorative practices are a few of the issues that our school communities are grappling with.

There is not a magic wand or fairy godmother to support this work.  We, are it. We have the privilege of educating children during a time when research is clear about the impact of trauma on brain development. We know that zero tolerance policies of the past are ineffective, even detrimental. We understand that the school to prison pipeline is a real risk (Teasley, 2014). Yes, this is an opportunity to do what is right for all students. We know that if students mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological needs are met, they will be learning ready (Souers, 2016).

Thus, we create environments where students feel safe, they are taught to self-regulate, deal with conflict and experience academic success. This requires a commitment to provide systems of support for all students. In a culture of accountability, where data drives our academic decisions, I challenge you to place that same value on the social emotional well-being of our students. There is not a curriculum that will guide us through this process. These are children who ultimately need relationship, caring consistency, accountability and empathy.

 We must move away from a deficit model that attempts to define children who have experienced trauma as damaged. It is our moral responsibility to capitalize on the strengths of our students. This requires a major shift in educational mindset.  Students can learn emotional regulation and social skills the same way they learn to read. Many educators do not come out of teacher preparation programs with the skillset to support social emotional growth. Thus, we must make it a priority to train staff regarding the latest research and support them as they support students.  We must shift our priorities to include emotional intelligence as an indicator of a successful student. We must shift from merely admiring the problem and blaming students, parents or teachers to a culture that supports the growth of the whole child.

Would Cinderella feel safe, cared about and successful in your school? It doesn’t require a magic wand to make this a reality for all students. The magic is in the relationships we build, the support we provide and the priorities we make.

Catheleen Schlotter, MSW
Assistant Principal
Snowdon Elementary
Intervention and Re-engagement Specialist
Cheney School District
National School Social Worker of the Year, 2016-2017
Washington State School Social Worker of the Year, 2016-2017

Souers, K. (2017) Fostering Emotional Literacy. Curriculum in Context, Journal of Washington State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, (42)1. Pp. 8-9.
Teasley, M.L.(2014) Shifting from Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice in Schools. Children and Schools, (36)3. doi:cs/cdu016

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How Does Game Based Learning Work?


Game based learning is a powerful instructional strategy that leverages student familiarity with and enthusiasm for games and combines it with proven instructional strategies.
The prime benefit of game based learning is in motivating students to engage with challenging learning tasks. The mechanism has not been fully researched but it is likely rooted in the fact that play is an innate drive for humans. Games have been present in every human culture throughout history. In fact, it is arguable that it is built into our biology with evidence of play in other mammals. Student interest in games can be maximized by understanding the interplay between games and motivation.

Daniel Pink’s thinking about motivation, based on the research of Deci and Ryan, says that once a person's basic physical needs are met, people are motivated by the need for autonomy, mastery, and meaning. Game based learning is a powerful way to incorporate these needs into instruction.

The best games provide players meaningful choices that determine their success. The game Chutes and Ladders for example quickly becomes tedious because success relies solely on the randomness of a die roll. The game Risk on the other hand has die rolling at the root of its mechanics but players make decisions on where to move their pieces weighed against the likelihood of success based on die rolling. Likewise, instruction that insist on compliance with a set method or strategy do not appeal to the human need for autonomy. An instructional game that allows for students exploring multiple strategies for reaching an understanding of what works and also what does not work through their own strategies rooted in their own understandings and skills is powerful. While this idea is incorporated into many instructional strategies, a game based approach builds in an implicit mechanism for this and can give students freedom to explore at their own differentiation, instead of a teacher attempting to plan for every differentiation.

The best games give players multiple paths towards mastery. The classic Super Mario Bros. video game highlights how games can start with easy levels that allow players mastery of the basic skills of the game. Boss battles at the end of each level check for mastery of those skills before allowing a player to move on to more challenging learning. Getting an answer right or wrong is stressful situation for students. While winning and losing a game is a normal outcome, particularly if students are given permission to play again until they master the game. A well-crafted game based experience gives students opportunities to explore their thinking on a subject and work through the various outcomes until they discover a viable path that is also tied to understanding a standard or learning target.

Corps of Discover, a game created by our game based cohort for 4th grade students. It incorporates 4th grade literacy, math, science, and social studies standards into a challenging game of exploring and surviving based on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The best games allow players to choose meaningful roles. In many digital or pen and paper role playing games, players decide their own part to play in the game. This allows players to develop strategies around the strengths and weaknesses of the role they play. Perhaps the greatest meaning is allowing students to experiment with new roles. James Paul Gee, the godfather of game based learning, speaks about the Identity principle in his thinking on game based learning. This is the idea that games are good at allowing players to explore the taking on of roles that they do not normally have access to. Games allow players to explore the identity of being an explorer or a warrior. A well-crafted game based learning experiences can give students a safe and accessible way to explore the identity of being a mathematician or a writer, a scientist or a leader. The narrative theme of a game can offer this connection to students as well. A game based system can be customized to various narrative themes to fit student interests or paired with a unit of study in a similar fashion.

In Tacoma Schools, we have spent the last four years developing game based approaches with teachers and have learned a few lessons. Game based learning does not need to be digital. Game based learning is often associated with video games such as the classic Math Blaster. Many early educational games were focused on repetitive skills acquisition. This may be good for homework or an extended learning activity but in school, game based activities should be built around higher depth of knowledge to maximize their effectiveness and use of school time. Creating digital games tailored to specific learning requirements of a teacher is likely beyond their ability and resources and may sink a game based initiative. Games that are built on readily available objects in the classroom such as math manipulatives, games that are on paper, or even movement based using the students allow for a teacher to explore viable game based instruction without investing too much time or money. It’s best to start small and be prepared to improve over many drafts and playtests. Students are the best play testers and they will give you good feedback on if your game is engaging and effective. Above all it is best to try something and improve it than to not try at all.

Submitted by:
Damond Crump
Instructional Facilitator
Tacoma Public Schools

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Critical Question Series: How Does Project Based Learning (PBL) Ignite Enthusiasm and an Appetite for Deep Learning for Both Students and Teachers?

Highly engaging learning, much like life, is a never ending process of encountering problems and exploring solutions. Project based learning is a powerful solution to the complex problem of practice educators continually encounter. How do we create the conditions in which students and teachers are truly engaged in learning that is meaningful, connected and real?

In a PBL classroom, learning is designed to answer essential questions, commonly generated by the students, to explore content across disciplines. Real world, relevant topics provide the why that fuels students to ask and answer increasingly more rigorous questions in a personally and socially meaningful context.  PBL classrooms are well suited for cooperative learning, developing essential college and career ready skills.  Both students and staff are engaged in authentic learning that is co-generated and collaborative. Units of study develop over several weeks leading up to demonstrations of learning including complex projects and presentations.  It’s real, a bit messy at times and thoroughly captivating for all involved. 

PBL allows kids to be kids! Students ask a lot of questions (i.e., Can we live on Mars?  Why do we need trees? Where does all the rain water go?). PBL gives learners the freedom to exercise that natural curiosity about life.  In a PBL environment, answers are not provided for students instead they are allowed the means to discover the answers.  Encouraged to pursue their own curiosity, learning which tools to use, students experience real success as problem solvers and creative thinkers.  Within this context, learning how to read, write and solve mathematical problems has direct purpose and application. Students own their learning and are motivated to learn content and skills.   Students practice collaborative skills like active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and valuing others’ knowledge and skills.

Likewise, teachers access their natural curiosity about the art and science of teaching. By working together, teachers research topics, plan which state standards students will learn, and refine their own collaboration skills.  For experienced teachers and new teachers, there is genuine professional growth and excitement for their communal work.  Experienced teachers share their knowledge of effective instruction and content.  New teachers infuse collaboration with innovative technology and pedagogy.  PBL fosters more organic collaboration.  Teachers seek out opportunities to work together during breaks, after school, and online.  Healthy professional relationships, essential to successful schools, are created through doing the work together. PBL provides the opportunity for staff to work closely together on things that matter to them which deepens staff bonds and mutual respect. They encourage each other, push each other gently, and grow together; a genuine professional learning community.

So what does it look like in real life?  Sherman Elementary, is a K-5 school in Tacoma with 426 students.  The Sherman teaching staff is strong in the sciences and our families include artists, professionals and creative entrepreneurs.  It’s the perfect mix of techies and fuzzies!  The staff started small with a few teachers collaborating around PBL cycles.  Their enthusiasm and success spread throughout the building.  Now, five years later, we do multiple PBL cycles school wide each year.  We integrate literacy, math, and art into science based cycles. Informational texts at different complexity levels are used for research.  Parents with professional expertise (a chef, an entomologist, a salmon biologist, a cartoonist) and business partners (a farmer, retailers, architectural firms) add to the richness of classroom discussions.  Students use our Maker Space to create prototypes and revise and rebuild after receiving feedback from these experts. Teaching and learning is fun, engaging for teachers and students, and rewarding for everyone.
Project based learning is an answer to the age old problem of how to enhance student and staff engagement to improve learning outcomes. At Sherman, the ownership of learning is clear and compelling for both students and staff. Resources are abundant: curiosity, questioning, collaboration, commitment and community. It all starts with a problem that needs a solution or a question that needs an answer.  Students and teachers alike have plenty of those!

Anne Tsuneishi
Principal, Sherman Elementary
Tacoma Public Schools