Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Foundations for Learning PreK-Adult
April 2017
In This Issue

STEM/STEAM Roadshow!
Nurturing Children in Schools in Finland
Maslow's Hierarchy Where does Food Fall
Implementing Heart Centered Learning
Dear Educators,

Whether it is strengthening the movement towards personalizing instruction, or revisiting what could be done to enhance early childhood education, it is time to reconsider the role of schools, their structure, and their potential as agents for societal change. As you read this month's Wow! we invite you to sit back and consider the practices we bring to you-- how students could drive their own instruction, how schools could become more nurturing to help make up for traumatic experiences children have encountered, or even how to help students focus on compassionate activities that are so critical for millions around the globe. How central are these concepts to the future of schools? To raising the relevance of schools?  

Personalizing Education
By Mahnaz Ahrary, CEI Intern
Catering to All Students
The nature of progress in the domain of equality often seems contradictory. The more that is preached about the importance of embracing and catering to the unique individuality of students, it seems that less is actually accomplished. So many layers of complexity and so many obstacles. The student population in the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, and it is unfortunate that discovering and implementing an approach to teach each individual student seems not to have been a top priority.

A big if: If the U.S. was homogeneous - not that we advocate for this. If the U.S. was a more homogeneous community and if education was to focus on teaching children of one single socioeconomic status, one ethnic background and one intelligence type and talent, the current system might work. And of course, this is a big IF. Unimaginable in the U.S. Yet, even in such a circumstance there would be a guaranteed need to adjust curriculum and instruction to lead individual students to their highest potential.

Do we really need to race all students to reach specific goals at specific times? The public system of education need not be a system that is racing all students to reach specific goals by a specific time. Consider instead the possibility that individual students are reaching their individual potential through experiences that are befit to their individual learning styles. Could it be that educators are here to plant the seeds of the future, not so that every seed is planted at the same time (regardless of growing season) or that each seed sows the same result, but so that each child can be led to his or her highest ability to learn and create?  Perhaps children are like seeds, each unique, and requiring different amounts of water, sunlight, and fertilizer. The race isn't about putting the most seeds in the ground in May or harvesting all of them in August.

Vision of Personalizing 21st Century Education
Dan Domenech, the Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), along with Morton Sherman and John L. Brown, has put forth a vision of what a 21st century American public education system could entail in  Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success. It seems that years of frustration surrounding standards and accountability, along with bureaucracy and regulations, has given birth to a serious consideration of a fully implemented model of personalizing education.

Personalizing 21st Century Education provides guidelines to administrators and teachers on how to begin the conversation around personalization: 
  • First the vision of personalization, where learning is an ongoing process and not everyone learns the same thing at the same pace, is needed.
  • In their vision, grades and deadlines are diminished.
  • The education plan would be developed by the teacher, giving the teacher more of a director of learning role.
The basis of this vision is that the public education system is failing students who are living in poverty or come from culturally diverse background. The authors also describe our failure to prepare all students, by using the best technology available, for the world of work. They also propose that multilingualism be used as a resource within curriculum and instruction and to meet the unique psychological and social needs of low socioeconomic students. 

The vision includes:
  • Universal pre-school education and a personalized system of K-12 education where students will proceed at their own pace,
  • Taking advantage of today's technology,
  • Measuring progress against an agreed upon set of common core standards, and
  • Eliminating the agrarian school calendar and seat time requirement.
Square Pegs and Round Holes: Individual Plans Personalizing 21st century education requires a step by step manual that considers how technology will be used to transform curriculum and programs of study and especially how assessments will become more meaningful. The importance of cultivating parent, community and institutional partnerships cannot be emphasized enough. One way of building such an approach is to research and learn about some of the exemplar schools and to keep in mind some of the current practices that may be considered to personalize education such as Individualized Education Programs (IEP) in Special Education. The benefit of an IEP is that through tweaks and adjustments, students can access the same curriculum taught to the mainstream but adapted to their strengths and weaknesses. This alone, however, is not personalization. As Dan Domenech describes, this is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole, shaving off the edges, and rotating the peg-- perhaps an improvement, but never really a good fit. In other words, what is needed in Special Education, like tremendous teacher patience and empathy, the flexibility and open mindedness required to help students, and an IEP, are necessary for personalizing 21st century education to all students. Individual plans by themselves are not enough.

Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Utah
One exemplar school that was mentioned in Domenech's book is Innovations Early College High School. Early College High School has no bells or schedules while the curriculum is based on proficiency. Students here direct and important part of the decision -making process about what they learn and how they learn it. They use a blended-learning approach where students can access learning opportunities any time during a 24-hour period. Students are encouraged to "utilize the power and scalability of technology to customize education so that they may learn in their own style at their own pace," as stated by the district. Key features of this school are:
  • Use of technology to remove traditional classroom constraints and access learning any time and place, resulting in flexibility to take advantage of students' peak learning time.
  • Self-paced curriculum that enables high-achievement students to accelerate academically and struggling learners to spend as much time as they need to master the material they are learning.
  • Schedules that students can customize, which greatly enhances opportunities to explore topics, competencies, and themes that interest them
  • Flexible rates of progress: Students may take anywhere from one to eight courses at a time, including completing courses as quickly as they demonstrate competency
  • Assessment that is mastery-based, enabling on-the-spot monitoring of students' learning progression
  • A modular approach to learning curriculum content, with the learning sequence organized around meaningful segments that spiral and build on one another
  • Adaptive digital content with learning labs that enable personalized learning as well as student-student and student-teacher interactivity
Other Examples:

At the At the Career and Technical Center, law enforcement classes are taught by police officers and fire science is taught by firefighters. Emergency medicine classes taught by EMTs can lead to employment-ready certification when students turn 18.

In a Forensic Science class, students learn from police department forensic investigator Ryan Andrews about how to calculate the angle of impact of individual bloodstains and use strings to determine the area the bloodstains would have originated.

The International High School in Queens, NY was founded in the mid-1980s as a collaborative project keeping in mind the diverse student population, both economically and culturally. The school's focus is on providing alternative learning environments for students with limited English proficiency. Their instructional system includes two teachers side by side, where one focuses on language acquisition and the other guides the student on the content or subject. This dual teaching approach has been very helpful for ELL students.
A Biological Necessity

It may seem radical to eliminate the strata of curriculum organized by age group and grade level. However, it may be the very solution--not simply to address the diversity of intelligence, learning styles, socioeconomic status, but to support the notion that creativity and self-expression is a biological necessity, which cannot be promoted or discovered in an environment that is racing against time.

Domenech, D. A., Sherman, M., & Brown, J. L. (2016). Personalizing 21st century education: a framework for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jacobs, J. (2017, February 27). High school of the future: Cutting-edge model capitalizes on blended learning to take personalization further.  
Neurons to Neighborhoods & Brain Development
By Rachel Kelly, CEI Intern
happy_baby_eating.jpg Editor's Note: Neurons to Neighborhoods is a report prepared by the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development in 2000. The report provided critical findings on the issue of "nature versus nurture," and the impact of poverty, childcare, racial and ethnic diversity. It has important implications for Early Childhood Education that hold true today. It also strengthens arguments for high quality childcare and preschool programs.

Imagine the human brain as clay. It is flexible and malleable; our brains are able to bend and reconstruct themselves to learn new things. The human brain is the most easily molded during the early years of childhood, when the brain is still rearranging itself.

Up until a couple of decades ago, many people did not believe that young children could have psychological problems or disorders. However, research on this topic has grown immensely in recent years and researchers have learned a large amount of about children's psychological development. Because children's brains are so sensitive, it is extremely important that children are exposed to the right kind of environment when they are young. Many factors, big and small, will affect a child's cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social, and moral development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). 

Babies and emotional cues. Some children are born more adaptable than others, while some may be naturally more nervous. Studies have shown that some infants may keep their initial emotional traits (being an anxious baby, for example) into childhood and adulthood, but the experiences they have early on could affect how they handle their emotions for the rest of their lives. This is because of the brain's development and because infants and children naturally learn how to act based on their environment. By the time they are one-year old, infants are able to pick up the emotional cues of those around them (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

Caregiving and attachment. Infants benefit from a consistently positive environment. Having some kind of an attachment to a guardian (whether to a mother, father, grandmother, adoptive parent, school teacher, etc.) is essential for a child to grow properly. The best caregivers allow children to feel safe, and let them be confident enough to explore and learn about their surroundings. Healthy relationships help to "set the stage" for other relationships children will have later in their lives. Caregivers should try to teach children necessary social skills, such as how to respond in a stressful situation and how to interact with others (Shonkoff & Phillips). 

Caring environments, brain growth, and self-regulation. On a more biological level, however, being in a caring environment helps to stimulate a child's brain and influence the brain's wiring. It literally helps the brain grow more synapses and helps the nervous system form more connections in the brain. A more developed brain allows a child to adapt and learn more easily in his/her daily life (University of Maine). When a stressful situation happens, children raised in caring environments will be more likely to stay calm rather than overreact. Well-developed brains also help children better control their emotions in general, resulting in fewer behavioral and social problems. 

Impact of negative experiences. On the other hand, the opposite is true of negative experiences, environments, and relationships. Unhealthy experiences will negatively impact a child's growth and development.
  • For example, a child with a depressed mother may develop socioemotional problems (Shonkoff & Phillips,2000). This is partially because they will be learning from and imitating their mother's social behavior, but it has other biological effects as well.
  • Just as a good environment helps the brain grow, a negative one can hinder the brain's development.
  • If a child does not receive enough stimulation, his/her synapses will not grow as much, resulting in fewer neural connections in his/her brain.
  • Children in stressful home situations tend to have higher levels of cortisol (a steroid hormone) in their brains, which damages brain cells and results in reduced connections. This kind of damage will affect the child's social and emotional behavior. The child will be less able to regulate or control his/her emotions, which could lead to aggression, isolation, and many other psychological problems (Graham & Fordstadt, 2011).
Prolonged stress, child abuse, and social competence. Child abuse has even more detrimental effects on a child. Prolonged stress will worsen this kind of damage in the brain and to a child's well being. Research shows that "on average, children who have experienced physical abuse also have lower social competence, show less empathy for others, have difficulty recognizing others' emotions, and are more likely to be insecurely attached to their parents. Deficits have also been noted in IQ scores, language ability, and school performance" (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

Although there is no excuse for child abuse, it may not entirely be a parent's fault if he/she does not know how to provide a positive environment. People who grew up in a low economic status area may have been exposed to violence, poverty, food shortages, contaminated water, or other stressors that could have inhibited their own brain development. Because of poor quality resources in low socioeconomic areas, adults in these places may also suffer from mental illness, but may not realize they need help or want such help (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

Resources to help. There are preschools that specialize in social emotional learning and provide children with a supportive environment. For example, like other states, Pennsylvania has Early Learning Standards for their preschools to help infants and toddlers develop social skills.  The standards are organized around concepts such as Self-Awareness and Self-Management, Establishing and Maintaining Relationships, and Decision Making and Responsible Behavior.  A myriad of other resources exists to help the growth and development of children, such as the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

It isn't enough just to feed, bathe, and clothe a child. Children need a caregiver they can learn from and an environment that can help foster their growth. This means their guardians need to be caring, supportive, and rational. It may seem obvious or simple, but it is critical. These actions will literally affect the rest of their lives. 


Shonkoff, Jack P., & Phillips, Deborah (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Graham, J. & Forstadt, L.(2011). Children and brain development: What we know about how children learn. Orono, ME: University of Maine.

Center For Schools And Communities (2015,February ). Family Support News Brief. Camp Hill, PA:  Center For Schools And Communities.
Food Insecurity and Our Learning Communities: What Our Educators and CEI Are Doing
By Vanessa Abrahms, CEI Intern and M.A. Nutrition student at Boston College
Feeding our nation's youth is so critical that the USDA decided to alter the nutrition standards for school meals through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act supports the "federal school meal and child nutrition programs, increases access to healthy food, and promotes overall student wellness" (NEA). The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act represents a major achievement in promoting improved nutrition, opposing the obesity epidemic among children, and ending childhood hunger.

Not only is it important to provide access to wholesome food, but also learning about healthy options is critical. The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) has developed a Hunger Food Insecurity curriculum addressing food insecurity. The curriculum allows educators to better engage with the wellness initiative in order to lead exercises that will help students in understanding the importance of good nutrition and prolonged sustainability.
Teachers from various school districts have begun implementing CEI's curriculum for food insecurity. Some teachers have nearly completed the program while others have just begun. These schools are located in various cultural and socioeconomic characteristics, ranging from urban, suburban, and rural. Some of these places have been hit with poverty and food insecurity themselves. 

Instructors have been encouraged to share the results of CEI's in-classroom activities to showcase how food insecurity affects the students.

Urban Examples
Teachers from urban schools participating in the food insecurity curriculum include:
  • Kaitlin Montgomery from Al-Iman School in Raleigh, North Carolina
    • Kaitlin Montgomery's students attend a private Islamic school and her goal of implementing the curriculum is to help them become global citizens.
    • To illustrate food insecurity, Kaitlyn Montgomery handed out cookies to only a portion of students in her class. When the others students asked her why they couldn't have the cookies as well, she purposely ignored their questions and complaints. Later, the class had a discussion about food accessibility and related the exercise to individuals struggling with hunger and poverty.
  • Alicia Passante from Center City Public Charter School in Washington, DC
    • Passante is employing the curriculum through ESL After the Bell, an afterschool program that helps students who do not speak English at home.
    • As part of a service learning project, her students are contacting a local food bank. Alicia Passante's class plans to visit Martha's Table, a local food bank in order to help with food prep.
  • Alexandria Bowen from Kingsman Academy in Washington, DC
    • Bowen will be implementing the curriculum through her school's Expeditionary Learning program that helps students prepare students for success later in life.
  • Danielle Green from Thomas C. Boushall Middle School in Richmond, Virginia
    • Danielle Green's school is located in a very impoverished area, and she is hoping the curriculum will inspire her students to be more active in their community
  • Autumn Snell from Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland
    • The majority of Autumn Snell's students are on free or reduced lunches, and she wants to teach them to be involved in service learning.
    • Autumn Snell's class explored the World-O-Meter, which displays the number of people being born in real time. The World-O-Meter helped the students realize how serious food insecurity could become. The students have also done the hunger obstacle course and will begin working on a research project.
Rural Examples
Teachers  from rural schools participating in the food insecurity curriculum include:
  • Chris Burris and Ben Tollet from Homestead Elementary School in Cumberland, Tennessee
    • Chris Burris wants to teach his students about food insecurity because they still take food for granted even though they live in an agricultural area. Starting in 2017, Ben Tollet has taken over the curriculum and is teaching it to his science students.
    • Chris Burris' students completed the food insecurity worksheet and the hunger obstacle course. They have discussed the differences in public, private, and civic responsibility. He hosted a poster contest where students made posters with different messages about food insecurity, such as "How are we going to feed everyone when the world's population exceeds nine billion?" The class hung the posters in the hallway to be seen by passerbys. Another group of students will research and create hydroponic models to display in the entranceway of the school.
  • Stephen Facques from McKelvie Intermediate School in New Bedford, New Hampshire
    • Stephen Facques is implementing it as part of an afterschool program.
    • Stephen Facques' students visit New Horizon's Soup Kitchen in Manchester. The class helped place food products on the shelves and assembled backpacks that will help bring food to local children.
  • Kelly DeVareness from Lee Elementary School in Lee, Massachusetts
    • As a collective, the six grade educators have designed some locally-minded goals to meet the challenge of hunger and food insecurity within their communities.
    • Kelly DeVareness reported that students are participating in teacher and student-led mini workshops that focus on important topics including empathy, nutrition, family budgeting, sustainability, and farm to table considerations. Her early lessons consisted of teaching vocabulary words, considering the five basic needs for human beings to survive, fact-checking a video's many claims about food insecurity in the U.S., and considering food insecurity and safety, security, and health issues faced by people in poverty-stricken areas of South America.
    • DeVarness  is planning multiple service learning projects with her students. First, they are going to give out questionnaires and collect data on the local community. Next, the class will research and investigate the local programs that do community service. The class will also get visits from guest speakers that can help explain different aspects of wellness and philanthropy. In addition to this, DeVareness wants to create an herb garden, where the students can grow their own herbs that will be used for cooking.
    • DeVareness stated, "Over the next few weeks, I intend to implement the curriculum with workshops I am creating; a colleague may add one or two also. Guest speakers are a developing possibility. Students, individually and in small groups, may have some opportunities to seek out professionals like a farmer, chef, food distributor, food wholesaler... for conversations around farm to table realities and issues. Also, I have yet to confirm a field trip but hope to accomplish this goal as well." Lee Elementary is one of the many schools empathetic to the food insecurity epidemic crippling our nation because many students within their districts go without healthy food options."

CEI's curriculum addressing food insecurity is allowing students to consider nutrition concerns within their communities and educators are helping to facilitate that. Many of the schools are interested in establishing collaborative service learning experiences in an effort to generate student interest and community help. Food insecurity impacts all communities and it's important to address.

Students are realizing that empathetic and philanthropic action-oriented efforts on a local level can contribute towards a sense of community building.
National Education Association. " Child Nutrition." NEA - Child Nutrition. National Education Association, 2015. 

Rethinking "ready to learn"

How "ready to learn" are your students?  What might happen if their school environment upped its nurturing? If students were provided more opportunities to learn about "how to learn" rather than arriving at our doorsteps to be passive recipients of an heavily academic agenda that we have decided for them?  What might happen if students took a deep dive into topics such as food insecurity that are so very relevant to the needs that people around the globe are facing?


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement