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Updated state computer system frustrates districts during student testing period

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A major upgrade last month in the state’s primary student data collection system, CALPADS, has caused disruptions and data errors for many districts at one of their busiest times of the year. Statewide leaders representing districts told the state that some of the districts considered the system “unusable.”

The California Department of Education has acknowledged the frustration the rollout has created and says it is working to resolve the problems. But, voicing a common complaint, an administrator at one Southern California district said the severity of the glitches goes beyond time-consuming fixes and inconvenience. Rick Roberts, executive director of educational technology services at Grossmont Union High School District, said the problems are affecting the ability to administer the Smarter Balanced testing to some students and are undermining confidence that CALPADS will process information accurately in coming months.

“The end of the year (schedule) is at risk,” he said. “This sure looks like a year where data is suspect, at best.”

CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, has been the data workhorse since 2009. It houses much of the student information that the state collects, including attendance, courses taken, test results and accountability data that the federal government and the state require. But it has been laboring under the increasing data load, and the state has been planning a retrofit that it promises will substantially improve system performance and decrease how long it takes for uploaded data to be posted to the system.

It’s unclear why the department chose mid-April, during the Smarter Balanced testing, a peak period for using CALPADS, for the conversion. A spokesperson for the department initially said the U.S. Department of Education had been pressuring the state to get the work done, but the state department later clarified that was not the case.

In an April 22 letter to district, county office of education and charter schools, Jerry Winkler, director of the department’s Educational Data Management Division, wrote that the department “recognized the risk of implementing such significant system changes during the middle of the assessment season” but that it was critical to have the upgrade in place before the end-of-the-year data submission period.

“The CDE also apologizes for the larger than desired number of defects currently in the system. Some of these defects relate to the complexity of migrating many years’ worth of data into a new data structure,” he wrote.

Districts started filing complaints after CALPADS was put back in service on April 18, two weeks after it was taken down for the upgrade – a week longer than forecast. After continuing to receive reports from districts, Vernon Billy, CEO of the California School Boards Association, and Edgar Zazueta, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, wrote State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who oversees the department, on May 9 expressing their “deep concern.”

“Our members report experiencing significant challenges with CALPADS in recent weeks, to the extent that some consider the system as it currently stands unusable,” they wrote.

Among the issues they cited:

  • Districts could not keep up with changes and updates to special education students’ individualized education programs that dictate accommodations for taking Smarter Balanced tests. This could impact special education students’ ability to receive the correct accommodations when taking the tests.
  • Students transferring schools or districts were receiving multiple student identification numbers, delaying testing or, in some cases, requiring students to repeat Smarter Balanced tests.
  • Districts reported numerous errors in uploading data to the revised system, requiring lengthy manual fixes.

“These challenges have reached critical mass far beyond IT departments’ capabilities and are affecting operational functions at the district and school level,” Billy and Zazueta wrote. Small districts without the staff and expertise to address the issues were the most impacted, they said.

Two days after the letter was sent, top department officials met with the organizations to discuss the issues and held another meeting this week in which they detailed how they were addressing the problems.

Roberts and David Feliciano, superintendent of La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools, said school districts are worried that the data problems with student ID numbers and special education students could jeopardize their ability to meet the required 95% participation rate on the Smarter Balanced tests, invoking federal penalties. Just a handful or a few dozen students who miss the tests or decline to take them over could push a district under the threshold, they said.

But waivers from the U.S. Department of Education are unlikely, the department told administrators at this week’s meeting.

“We remain in dialogue with CDE, and hopefully districts can avoid penalties beyond their control,” Troy Flint, chief information officer for the school boards association, said.

Flint and Zazueta said this week they appreciated that the department responded quickly to their letter and are dealing with the issues with urgency. But they are still hearing complaints daily from districts.

“We understand that technology updates can take time and create challenges, but problems remain,” said Flint.

Roberts and Feliciano are pessimistic.

The department “hears it from us, but they are not close enough to students to understand what the impact really is,” said Roberts. “We’re told things are getting fixed, but they’re not really fixed.”

Feliciano, who was a technology administrator before becoming a superintendent, found it “disheartening” that the department didn’t revert to the existing system after finding significant problems with the rollout.

The department’s approach was “cavalier, brushing aside concerns and issues,” he said.

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How to Celebrate the End of the Year in Elementary School

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It’s been a long year for kids and teachers, but here we are, almost at the finish line. It’s a time to enjoy the students you got to know and care about this year and celebrate the unique classroom identity they formed. Staying focused on work as the weather turns warm and summer is on the horizon is never easy. These strategies can help you keep your classroom calm, incorporate fun into learning, and reflect on all you have accomplished together during the final weeks of school. They have worked well with my first graders and could be effective in other elementary grades as well.

End-of-Year Ideas

Keep the energy calm. Sometimes when the energy level in the room is high, sticking to established routines can help keep expectations clear and encourage students to stay focused on class procedures you have worked hard to establish during the year. To do this, we sometimes need to slow down and practice these expectations again to help students reset behaviors and remember classroom norms.

Routines can also help kids feel safe when inevitable change is ahead at the end of the year and things feel uncertain. Knowing what to expect each day keeps school a predictable place that kids can count on. Incorporating meditations into your day or a quiet time with the lights low when you give students a choice to write, read, or draw independently is another way to keep the energy calm and focused.

Take a break. If the energy level in the class begins to escalate, using Responsive Classroom’s “Take a Break” method is an excellent way to keep the classroom calm, safe, and orderly. It allows kids to step away from the group when they begin to lose self-control and come back when they are ready to refocus on learning and work productively with others. Sometimes, even the teacher needs to relax for a moment.

A good way to do this is to have the whole class settle in to listen to a story together from Storyline Online. It’s a fun way to engage with well-loved books. For example, try Oprah Winfrey reading The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen, and then the class can have a Hula-Hoop contest outdoors. At the end of the day, you can enjoy Chris O’Dowd reading Arnie the Doughnut and then share a box of doughnuts. It is a sure way to bring a few calm moments, combined with some fun and laughter, into your day.

Keep learning fun. Allowing kids to have academic choices within a framework is one way to keep them engaged at the end of the year. Use the independence that your students have developed over the year, and give them some freedom in designing how they will accomplish their work. This could look like having stations at math time where kids choose between their favorite math games, having a genius hour of student-directed research, or engaging in a project-based learning activity such as identifying and mapping the plants or trees growing on your school property.

Also, incorporating learning games like Quiz, Quiz, Trade, playing charades with vocabulary words, or having students create and lead review games using an online platform like Kahoot or Quizlet can keep things interesting for kids.

Get outside. Spring is the perfect time to get outside with your students to see new leaves on trees, observe flowers popping up, and look for birds returning to the schoolyard. This year, I have taken my class outside each week for something we call “sit spots, storytelling, and hot tea.” My students spend 10–15 minutes sitting alone in their sit spots with a journal to write and draw what they observe in nature. It encourages them to notice what is happening around them as the seasons change. Then we come back together to tell stories of what we saw or how we felt as we share cups of tea. It is our favorite way to center ourselves and reflect together as a class.

Write gratitude letters. The end of the year is a great time to look back and reflect on the highlights. I will often ask my students: What did you accomplish this school year? What are you most proud of? Who helped you achieve your goals? We use these reflections to write gratitude letters to friends and teachers who were important to us throughout the year. The kids love walking around the school to deliver a gratitude letter to a favorite teacher or friend. It is a wonderful way to celebrate accomplishments and appreciate the people in your school community who helped contribute to your students’ successes.

Make time for celebrations. Find ways to plan celebrations for the kids to look forward to each week outside of the regular work routine. It can be simple, like a walking field trip around the neighborhood or heading outside for a rock-paper-scissors tournament. It can also be a more elaborate celebration, such as inviting families in for an author’s breakfast to listen to the kids reading some of their writing from the year, an outdoor field day, or a class picnic. Having your class vote on ways they would like to celebrate the end of the year makes things feel more festive and joyful for students and teachers.

As hard as it is to keep kids engaged at the end of the school year, it can also be a joyful time with your students. Keeping a calm, predictable routine until the end, finding ways to make learning fun, and reflecting on accomplishments together are reliable ways to keep kids happy and engaged, reduce behavior issues, and end the year strong and proud.

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Using Weekly Goals to Help Students Finish the School Year Strong

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As we make our way toward the home stretch, keeping students engaged becomes increasingly challenging. The rise in temperatures is accompanied by a rise in distractions and daydreams. On top of that, end-of-year performances, Advanced Placement exams, final summatives, and graduation all contribute to increased stress levels for our students. Especially in a self-paced class like mine, with no uniform due dates, it’s easy for students to lose motivation.

I put a tremendous amount of trust in my students to know themselves and to be responsible. If they tell me that they’re having a bad day, are overwhelmed with work, or didn’t sleep the night before, I give them the opportunity to do work for another class or put their head down for a few minutes. Such instances become more frequent this time of year.

My students themselves recognize when they have begun taking advantage of this trust. I recently polled the class, and they actually requested more structure. I asked, “How can we hold each other accountable for learning without my needing to implement firm deadlines or sacrifice my faith in your decision-making?”

Together we devised a game-changing solution: working with students to set weekly goals for themselves. Students hold themselves accountable and learn important executive functioning skills, like preemptively planning for a day when they might need to catch up in another class.

The strategies below are applicable in self-paced classes like mine and in traditional classes that already have firmer deadlines. In the latter case, use goal setting to help students catch up on late or missing work, devise study plans for finals, or create checkpoints for themselves on final projects.

Facilitating Goal Setting

1. Schedule students for two-to-five-minute meetings. Have a few at the beginning of each class period or right after your opening activity. Keep the schedule of meetings visible so that students know which day they will meet with you.

2. Before the meeting, ask students to prepare. They should be ready to answer these questions:

  • Where are you? What did you just finish, and what do you need to do next?
  • Did you meet your goals last week? How might you adjust the volume each day moving forward?
  • What obstacles do you see coming up this week that might get in the way of having an effective workday? Do you need to plan in a day to work for another class? Are you traveling for a game? How’s your mental health?

3. During the meeting, print out a schedule for the week or month ahead. Ask the students to talk about their answers to the questions above and begin setting goals for the upcoming week. Remind them of anything they may have missed, and help them reflect on the previous week. Students can either set daily goals or set a larger goal that will be due by the next meeting.

4. After the meeting, encourage students to check off their progress on their goal calendars each day. They should also make notes about how things might need to shift the following week.

What It Looks Like

For the last month, I have been using this procedure effectively in two very different classes: my self-paced calculus class and my project-based statistics class.

Calculus students typically set daily goals like “Watch the video on concavity, take notes, and start the practice problems.” They look at the length of each assignment to predict whether they’ll be able to finish it in one class period or two.

The first week, one student set a single goal: “I want to finish all of module 12 by next week.” Each day, he procrastinated. I observed, gently reminding him how many class periods remained before he needed to achieve his goal. During our next meeting, he reflected that he probably needed to set daily goals for himself instead. The next week was far more productive.

Another student who had struggled with motivation all year chose to take work with him outside of class so that he wouldn’t fall behind on his goals. I never require students to take work with them, and this was the first time that he did so.

In statistics, the students typically set larger goals that serve as project benchmarks. Their goals are often things like “Have a clear and workable data set” or “Produce five linear regressions from my data.” These short goal-setting meetings have helped me keep track of their progress on the project and redirect them if they are headed down an unproductive rabbit hole.

The Benefits

My students have learned self-monitoring strategies such as tracking their progress, understanding their own capabilities and limitations, and anticipating their emotional needs. They’ve also learned valuable executive functioning skills like budgeting time and looking ahead to plan for schedule blips. Through this process, they have held themselves accountable for their learning, despite all of the distractions that come with springtime.

All the while, I’ve been able to continue trusting my students to know what’s best for themselves. This process also frees my time to support them in ways that go beyond striving for uniform compliance. Together, this goal-setting structure will get my students and me past the finish line.

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How Blockchain Can Encourage Learning

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A version of this article first appeared at the Medium site of the Stanford GSE Office of Innovation and Technology.

Blockchain has gotten plenty of attention lately as a new mode of exchange, allowing experimental cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and the sale of NFTs in ways that leave an unalterable, fully transparent public record that tracks the transfer and ownership of digital things.

And the technology may help address an age-old challenge in any classroom: motivation.

A group of blockchain projects called “learn-to-earn” (also sometimes called “earn-to-learn”) aims to incentivize learners to engage with educational content and, just as importantly, stick with it. Several startups are experimenting with encouraging users to watch tutorials or take quizzes in exchange for earning cryptocurrency. CoinMarketCap’s “learn crypto, earn crypto” program, for instance, has refined its program one step further, so that once a learner demonstrates they’ve mastered some material, rewards are directly deposited into the learner’s digital wallet.

Other emerging programs in the K12 space focus on the unique needs of hard-to-reach students. Consider Learning Coin, a project led by the World Bank that incentivizes students in rural communities to stay in school and improve academic performance. The program evaluates completion and consistency of student work, then releases digital funds accordingly.

While conventional cash transfer programs can be vulnerable to corruption and fail to scale due to inefficiencies, blockchain supports the World Bank’s program by ensuring transactions are recorded publicly on a transparent digital ledger. As a governance tool, these automated transfers also reduce administrative overhead and record-keeping, which can be challenging for education programs in remote locales.

Another platform, Mygrants, allows learners to access skills training and build new competencies while developing credit through digital cash transfers performed at a low cost by blockchain technologies. The training content is broken up into short, personalized learning “pills” based on personal goals. As students answer questions, they collect points and receive formative feedback to develop critical-thinking skills. Learners benchmark their progress against peers with similar goals, and they receive badges, points, and a digital payout at the end of the month if they reach their goals.

In the area of lifelong learning, the Learning Economy Foundation (LEF) aims to create a decentralized, blockchain-based network where skills and credentials are stored within a digital identity that follows the learner. Recently, LEF partnered with LEGO Foundation to create a gamified learning experience, called SuperSkills!, where elementary school students can select adventures and collect gifts as a result of learning core skills. Under the hood, the app uses the W3C’s Universal Wallet, a framework developed by MIT and LEF to store credentials within a blockchain-based identity. This identity is not locked down to one app or company, allowing learners to own their data and use it as they wish across their academic and professional lifetimes.

Ramping Up Is Hard to Do

As with any emerging technology, equity must be at the core. Early research indicates that blockchain adoption skews towards students with technical backgrounds and entrepreneurial mindsets.

However, there is encouraging data around access and utility for under-priveleged communities. “Play-to-earn” projects with well-designed user interfaces such as Axie Infinity have seen significant adoption among low-income groups, and currently supplement household incomes in the Philippines. Burgeoning projects with national governments may broaden opportunities for student credentials in Ethiopia, skill validation in the country of Georgia, and more distributed and inclusive communities via decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).

At the same time, these new learning pathways will likely face technical drawbacks. Accessibility with older systems and devices, like those commonly used in developing economies, will be problematic (although browser-based applications may offer a short-term solution). While blockchain’s interconnected and open nature is key to data ownership and exchange, individuals must be vigilant with data security to prevent hacking incidents.

Finally, as learn-to-earn projects and digital wallets mature, learner-centered design will become more crucial. As any teacher or parent knows, extrinsic rewards can only go so far; balancing extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation is crucial throughout a learning trajectory.

And while extrinsic motivation may get students in the door, teaching strategies like sense-making and project-based curricula have been shown to keep students authentically engaged in a task. A new community of technologists and educators will need to rise to the challenge to design a layered and adaptive system of rewards and strategies — a concept referred to by blockchain enthusiasts as “tokenomics.” To find success with learners, blockchain projects that reach into the classroom will be looking more to educators to co-architect incentives and journeys that meet the student where they are at personally, academically, and financially.

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‘Like a Movie That Never Ends’: Oakland Mourns and Celebrates the Lives of Black People Killed in Buffalo

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The brass and woodwind instruments played by members of the Oakland Second Line Project in front of City Hall on a balmy Wednesday evening sounded jubilant — but this performance wasn’t about revelry.

That’s because the people gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza were there to eulogize the 10 people killed by a white supremacist gunman in the May 14 racist massacre in Buffalo, New York.

A total of 13 people were shot, almost all of them Black.

Vivian Yi Huang, who is Chinese, felt it was important for her 3-year-old daughter, K’mara, who she said is a mix of Chinese, Samoan and Black, to be at the vigil.

“My daughter represents so much of the hope that I have,” said Huang, co-director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, an environmental justice organization whose primary focus is creating healthy living environments for Asian immigrant and refugee communities. “I feel like it’s so important for her to be in a space where people are really celebrating the dignity and the worthiness and value of all of us that’s inherent in us as human beings.

“We as a community need to continue fighting white supremacy to make that real.”

The second line, with its chest-rattling bass drum, is the triumphant sound of Blackness, a sound that originated in West Africa.

It’s a sound that survived the Atlantic slave trade.

It’s a sound that mourns and “celebrates the lives of Black people,” Cat Brooks, Oakland activist and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, the vigil’s organizer, told the crowd.

It’s been 30 years since the uprising in Los Angeles after the police officers who mercilessly beat Rodney King — the first viral video of police brutality — were acquitted. We’re 13 years since the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, the first viral video of a police killing of a Black man captured by cellphone cameras and spread on social media. We’re almost two years since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, his death shared widely on social media.

The shooting in Buffalo is yet another reminder that Black life in America is as fragile now as it was when the enslaved were emancipated.

Politicians across the country are moving to disenfranchise Black voters by rolling back voting rights and drawing redistricting maps that dilute Black voting power. In California, Black and brown voters organized to create the Bay Area’s most diverse congressional district to ensure better representation only to see a 77-year-old white man endorsed as the incumbent by the state Democratic Party.

Reproductive rights are on the precipice of being overturned by the Supreme Court, and political capital in some corners of America is gained by denying the truth about the 2020 presidential election.

Here’s an undeniable truth: An 18-year-old white man, armed with a high-powered rifle and racist, anti-immigrant views and the belief that white Americans are being replaced by people of color, drove 200 miles to a Black neighborhood to kill Black people shopping in a grocery store.

As my colleagues Alex Hall and Julie Small reported earlier this week, domestic extremism is on the rise in California and America.

“What’s clear is we can’t keep treating acts of white supremacy as one-off crimes committed by supposed lone wolves suffering from mental health problems,” Erika Smith, a Los Angeles Times columnist, recently wrote. “We also can’t keep giving a pass to conservative pundits and Republican politicians who directly or indirectly encourage adherence to the ‘Great Replacement’ theory or any other tenet of racism or extremism.”

That’s the truth.

Before the vigil, I followed the second-line processional down Broadway, but stopped at Oakstop, a co-working space, where Dieudonné Brou was preparing for a meeting of the DetermiNation Black Men’s Group, a cultural healing and social justice program for young Black men. I asked Brou, who works for Urban Peace Movement, what he felt after he heard about the massacre.

“They will go to great lengths to cause terror on Black folks, on Black bodies, on Black spaces — more importantly on the Black mind,” said Brou, referring to symbolic violence, a term sociologists use to describe the hierarchical leverage that groups exert over others deemed inferior. “This man drove 200 miles, killed 10 people, but think about the effects it’s gonna have on millions of Black folks. It’s gonna stick with us.

“It’s like a movie that never ends.”

Down the street, at the corner of Broadway and Thomas L. Berkley Way, there was a labor protest. People held cardboard signs demanding higher wages as a man in a yellow vest handed out bottles of water.

I learned the protest was fake. I’d walked onto the set of “I Am Virgo,” an absurdist comedy from Boots Riley, the artist who gave us the brilliant 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You.”

There were almost as many people there as were at the vigil, a fact some might deem absurd.

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How to solve the teacher shortage remotely

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In this episode of Innovations in Education, hosted by Kevin Hogan:

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High-Achieving Black Students from Colorado Receive More than $2 Million in Sachs Foundation Scholarships Over the Past Year

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 19, 2022 — The Sachs Foundation, an organization that has provided college scholarships to Black Coloradans since 1931, announced today that it has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships to talented Black students in the Centennial State over the past year. Sachs Foundation scholars are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees from universities and colleges in Colorado as well as top institutions from coast to coast, including Yale, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and Cornell and prestigious historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard University.

The foundation awarded 52 scholarships over the past year to exceptional Black students from all around Colorado, including Aurora, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, Commerce City, Denver, Fountain, Gypsum, Lafayette, Lakewood, Lamar and Woodland Park. The students who received Sachs Foundation support this year are not only accomplished in academics but have already made a positive impact in their communities through their achievements in the arts, athletics and volunteer activities. More than half of the students are the first generation in their family to attend college.

To celebrate the students’ excellence this year, the foundation sponsored a brunch for the 2022 Sachs Foundation Scholarship Program students and guests at the Penrose House in Colorado Springs. The guest speaker was Clint Smith, a journalist, educator, New York Times best-selling author, popular YouTube host, award-winning poet and staff writer at The Atlantic.

Pikes Peak resident Henry Sachs created the foundation during the Great Depression, awarding the first Sachs Foundation scholarship to Dolphus Stroud, whose family’s friendship with Sachs gave him vivid insight into the toll discrimination takes on Black Coloradans’ educational and economic prospects. Since that time, the Sachs Foundation has provided financial and/or mentoring support to more than 3,000 talented Black students from Colorado. Over the years, Sachs Foundation scholarship recipients have achieved personal success and enriched their communities through distinguished careers in many professions, including the arts, medicine, science, engineering and public service.

“Society has changed since Henry Sachs’ time, but as statistics confirm year after year, Black Coloradans still face significant obstacles to academic and professional achievement, so our mission remains as relevant as ever,” said Ben Ralston, President, Sachs Foundation. “This year’s scholarship recipients are incredibly brilliant in the academic sense but also committed to their communities and eager to help others. We’re honored to provide them with the support they need to pursue their dreams.”

Last year, the Sachs Foundation celebrated 90 years of providing opportunities to Black students. The foundation makes applications available annually between January 1 and March 15 to Black residents of Colorado. Eligible students and their families are encouraged to apply. Scholarships are based on academic merit, financial need and character. Learn more at www.sachsfoundation.org.

About the Sachs Foundation

Founded by Pikes Peak resident Henry Sachs in 1931, the Sachs Foundation provides scholarship programs designed to help Black Coloradans overcome discrimination and reach their full academic potential. Over the decades, the Foundation has helped thousands of talented Black students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees at universities throughout the United States, dispersing millions in funding through its unique education equity approach. Learn more about the Sachs Foundation, student success stories and how to apply for scholarship grants at www.sachsfoundation.org.

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Tools for Supporting Students With Reading Disabilities

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I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look and broad smile on a fourth-grader’s face when I asked him if he was willing to read in a different way. He had a reading disability, and I had just taken him to the school library and told him to choose any chapter books that he was interested in reading, not just the “baby books”—his words—that he could independently decode. His picks were available and downloaded within minutes from Bookshare, an Office of Special Education Programs–funded organization that provides a vast library of free accessible ebooks for students with print disabilities who qualify.

This intersection of choice, self-determination, and technology was powerful—it started an entire new chapter of self-confidence and independence for this student.

Students with reading disabilities can interact with texts in a variety of ways. They can decode, they can listen to an in-person read-aloud, or they can listen to human audio text or digital text, also called text-to-speech (TTS). Using TTS allows for equity and access. If struggling readers are limited to text they can decode, how can they enjoy the richness of written language, participate in class discussions, learn academic content, and develop a love for reading? Text-to-speech opens up new worlds for them.

Research demonstrates that using text-to-speech tools increases engagement and allows students to access grade-level content and material, as well as websites and books of interest. Interaction with curricular content can help students improve their vocabulary, comprehension, reading accuracy, and fluency. Perhaps most importantly, the use of TTS improves students’ positive feelings about reading and school.

Assistive Technology Tools and Digital Text Build Capacity

Students and teachers need a variety of tools in their toolboxes. Bookshare delivers with its extensive repository, reading tools, and ability to provide textbooks and honor text requests, giving students vast digital resources for both personal and academic use.

Learning Ally, a fee-based organization that sometimes takes requests, provides books with human audio, which is sometimes preferred for pleasure reading. Human audio text may or may not have simultaneous text highlighting to support tracking and does not have a mechanism to interact directly with text.

Many factors affect tool choice and use. A student reading a novel might use an assistive technology (AT) tool that can highlight and annotate digital text, instead of relying on a phone app that reads a menu or email, for example.

Settings where students learn and work, such as large classrooms, small groups, or the kitchen table, also impact tool choice and use. Staff, family, and student buy-in, as well as access to and ability to use AT tools, remain key factors in effective implementation. Keep in mind that students, environments, tasks, and technology change. Ideally, exploring AT tools and services should be an ongoing, problem-solving process throughout students’ academic careers.

To assist students, teachers need to ask, “What is the goal of the activity? And is the student learning to read, or reading to learn?” Remediation and accommodation can coexist, and they can be balanced and beneficial in educational settings. Remediation assists the student in overcoming academic challenges and developing mastery, while accommodations such as AT include alterations of the environment, curriculum format, or equipment that empower an individual with a disability to gain access to content and/or complete assigned tasks. Using AT is not cheating; rather, assistive technology can change the academic trajectory of students with reading and writing challenges.

Teacher, Parent, and Student Teamwork Is Key

It’s not enough to know what AT tools can do. We need to teach students how to use the tools, how they can improve their work, how to advocate for tool access, and how to choose the right tool for the task and environment. We need to make time for students to explore the tools in-depth and collect data on how the tools aid engagement and performance.

Furthermore, teachers need support in learning the tools, integrating the tools, and troubleshooting problems in real-time. “Show and tell” alone doesn’t cut it—ongoing student and teacher coaching with clear expectations for tool use, understanding of how and when to access support, and outcome measures are key. And when teachers collaborate and communicate across content areas to ensure tools are successfully embedded across the curriculum, students succeed.

Parent education is also critical. Parents need to know when their child will be better served decoding text, reading digital text, or listening to audio text. They need to understand AT use and how to support their children at home and across educational settings so they can meaningfully participate and advocate within educational teams.

In many districts and households, lack of knowledge and limited budgets can negatively impact access to and provision of quality AT services. The individual and societal costs of illiteracy are immense. Bottom line: The literature supports the premise that students with learning differences who use AT transition more successfully to high school, show improved quality of work, gain positive perceptions of themselves as learners, and experience positive post-school outcomes. Such intersection of choice, self-determination, and technology can be powerful. How can we afford not to provide a valuable resource like assistive technology tools?

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The Role of Working Memory in the Writing Process

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In high school, reflection essays, analysis papers, and literature reviews for English and other courses supplement more traditional summaries and narratives. Regardless of the focus, we’re familiar with the complicated writing process, which requires brainstorming, organizing, and translating ideas into words while using correct mechanics (punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, etc.). At the same time, writing a coherent and well-developed piece requires valuable working memory. Unfortunately, subtle working memory issues may increase these complex writing challenges.

Writing demands working memory capacity, retention time, and processing depth. For example, gaps in remembering and understanding information slow the process of manipulating and translating information. As a result, students may prematurely discard information they need. How can we engage students in maximizing their working memory functioning throughout the writing process?

Consider the following strategies: increasing capacity through note-taking, deepening processing with discussion and summarization, and extending retention time with review and revisions.

Setting Up a Writing Task to Account for Working Memory

Analyzing the writing task: Analyzing the assignment and identifying discrete steps creates a structure in working memory, easing the mental organization process. While doing this with your class, ask students for examples of relevant information. For example, if they are analyzing the Napoleonic Era, ask them to provide two decisions Napoleon made that led to his defeat. Examples provide students with brain priming and enable you to assess retention and comprehension. In this way, task analysis serves as a confirmation of students’ understanding of directions and their content knowledge.

Consider the following strategies: intermittent low-stakes testing to support remembering and understanding, student-generated teach-backs for knowledge review and rehearsal, student partnerships for reading directions, and use of step-by-step checklists.

Prewriting: Now that students have created a mental organization framework, they can begin writing. A structured approach is essential when considering the extensive working memory demands. For example, creating an organizer provides a review of information, thus increasing the depth of working memory processing. This way, information is more efficiently organized for easy long-term memory storage. Thus, rather than taxing working memory capacity, information can be accessed more easily from long-term memory as needed.

Start by activating prior knowledge with a 5- to 10-minute brainstorm. Then create an overall structure of subtopics, main ideas, and their logical connections, using outlines, mind maps, graphic organizers, or note cards.

Leave time between creating the organizer and revising it to allow for mental organization of the information and increased objectivity. During the revision, have students use notes to identify possible gaps. Be sure to recognize the need for processing time to facilitate decision-making. Avoid fatigue by establishing a work session of an hour at most, such as 45 minutes of focused work, a 5-minute break for processing, and a 10-minute review.

Planning: Executive functions such as attention, inhibition, and emotional regulation impact working memory functioning. Therefore, planning is a proactive step that can help students overcome future obstacles. Partner students to expand the writing process checklist they created during task analysis.

For example, have students enter work session appointments with alerts into a digital calendar. Have them enter interim due dates with a specific action step for receiving feedback. Finally, a growth step would be to include step-specific time estimates to encourage the development of accurate planning.

Translating ideas into words: Translating ideas into words requires self-regulation. Decisions regarding word choice, spelling, and grammar require persistence. Therefore, avoiding internal distractions impacts working memory’s ability to manipulate and organize information.

Have students consider the following strategies:

  • Cover everything in the organizer except the section guiding their current writing.
  • Lessen cognitive and physical demands with speech-to-text.
  • Write without editing by turning off spell or grammar check features.
  • Establish a cueing system to mark words or areas of uncertainty. Try highlighting or italicizing word choice to review, or adding a question mark to indicate uncertainty of ideas.

Editing: Allow at least an hour between writing and editing to let students focus on their actual wording versus what they think they wrote. Time also offsets the emotional attachment to their words. Finally, lessen the chances of students feeling overwhelmed by limiting editing to one or two specific areas. Their editing checklist might focus on writing mechanics, specialized vocabulary, or places they flagged as unclear during writing. Either partner students or consider using text-to-speech to ensure accurate reading of their draft.

Reflecting: Reflection provides a review of the student’s writing process. Emphasizing their goals and gains moves them from working memory to long-term memory.

To reinforce growth, ask students to identify a gain. Then establish a goal by focusing on a feedback suggestion. For example, perhaps they struggled to hold information in their working memory while writing an English essay. Ask them to identify a strategy, technology, or resource that would support their ability to decide what information to include in a future organizer.

When working memory is functioning effectively and efficiently, the complex demands of writing become steps in a workable process rather than obstacles of frustration.

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4 Simple Steps to Providing Free-Choice Learning

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Every year many people visit museums, parks, and historic sites while on vacation, and there are many reasons why: family traditions, capturing that perfect picture, or because their parents made them go. Among these people are some who hope to learn something.

That was true of me during a recent visit I made to a historic site. I stopped by the visitor center and asked the ranger on duty how I might best spend my few hours, and she told me I had several options: I could attend a ranger talk, download the free self-guided tour app, buy a guidebook, or wander and read any of the interpretive panels I came across. Whatever I chose, she said that I’d come away with the same information, so it was just a question of what I thought was best for me.

Free Choice Puts Learners in Control

What I experienced is known as free-choice learning, an educational approach used at museums, zoos, and national parks. Essentially, visitors encounter multiple curated invitations that take a wide variety of forms, leaving the choice up to them. No matter their choice, the information is the same even if the method varies.

The appeal of this approach is obvious. It provides the learners with choice, a powerful engagement tool for promoting learning when other factors like grades or attendance aren’t as motivating. It’s also self-scaffolding, a strategy that supports students who may be emerging bilinguals, those who have trouble reading complex texts, or those who prefer to learn as part of a group opportunity. Students choose the approach that works best for them. Learners who may prefer information to be presented in a specific way can all have what they want. One student might find animations of a volcano erupting more informative, while another might prefer detailed readings, but they both get what they prefer.

This same strategy can work inside your classroom if you follow a basic four-part structure.

1. Provide a common foundation. Before you allow learners to explore on their own, it’s important to ensure that they share a common understanding. Orienting them to foundational vocabulary or reviewing key concepts will help them make sense of what they find on their own or what you have prepared for them.

Start with a unifying experience—a short reading or an illustrative video. This will help introduce them to the topic, reinforce essential details, and help build vocabulary, and at the same time it will give you an opportunity to formatively check their understanding. What’s more, this is a good opportunity for skill development, such as reading comprehension or writing a summary before self-direction begins. Providing a framing question for them to keep in mind as they explore on their own helps guide the experience.

2. Curate invitations. Following your foundational activity, share your collection of learning invitations with students. Invitations can take many forms: a Google Doc, a simple website, or a collection of stations distributed throughout the classroom. Whatever form they take, remember the following:

  • Only include resources that are developmentally appropriate for the majority of your students—keep encyclopedia entries out of early readers’ hands. Instead, consider early reader books or Newsela articles where you can control the difficulty.
  • Include a variety of multimodal resources. Texts, videos, audio, manipulatives, and even peer discussion stations are all good possibilities.
  • Try to limit the scope of your invitations. You’ll want to provide some choice, but do so without overwhelming your students with too many options. What an appropriate number looks like depends on grade level, so use your own knowledge of your students when planning. It might take an attempt or two to dial it in, so starting with less is always advisable.
  • Make sure that your resources are accessible to a wide range of abilities and learning levels. This allows students who may struggle with specific learning invitations to eventually find ones that are more appropriate for them.

3. Give students an equal voice. As students begin to make their way through the collection of resources you’ve created for them, you may notice that some students are hungry for more. This is a great opportunity to empower them to find their own additions to your carefully curated collection.

This is good because it not only provides automatic extensions for high-performing learners but also helps you to refine and improve your plans for future classes. Students may find resources that are more appropriate for them or find things that you just missed due to time constraints. Allowing them to have a role in finding things that could benefit them or their peers is a great way of including aspects of personalized learning in your free-choice lessons.

You can encourage this by allowing them to search the internet or connect them with sites that do a good job of combining multimedia with academic content, like National Geographic Kids or PBS Kids.

4. Choose your goals with care. Free-choice learning can definitely be used in every grade level and every content area, but not all learning goals are appropriate for this kind of approach. If the standards that you’re focusing on aren’t open-ended or don’t lend themselves to an inquiry process, you may want to consider saving free-choice learning for a different unit or instructional sequence.

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