Posted in education

TEACHER LEADERSHIPHow to Help Teachers Learn New TechnologyCreated by and for teachers, one school created an effective approach for technology professional development.By Nicole Rossi-MumpowerDecember 11, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

As an assistant principal charged with introducing teachers to new technology, I continually ask myself how we can advance student engagement and implement strategies via technology that invoke teacher and student creativity, while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the curriculum. These concerns drive me every day in normal times, but with the rise of hybrid and remote learning, they are at once heftier and more urgent.

At the start of distance learning, I emailed the staff resources such as videos and demonstrations for particular tools; but while my intention was to offer support, the emails were largely unread by an already overwhelmed staff working on the front lines with their students. Missed opportunities were sitting in those in-boxes, and even if teachers did explore resources I shared, they often wound up feeling uncertain about how to proceed. Fresh ideas lay dormant, with little reprieve in sight.

I went back to my fundamentals and immediately knew that answers could be found among the teacher leaders right in front of me.


I decided that we needed a team that would function much like a professional learning community (PLC) and that I would call it a Digital Learning Team (DLT); the way I envisioned it, through this team, colleagues could connect to support each other, share ideas, and build student engagement.

At my high school, the DLT is composed of five innovative and tech-savvy teachers from various content areas including chemistry, Spanish, and social studies, as well as our media specialist. Each one has unique skills and experience, so they are equipped to meet the diverse needs of the student body. The DLT gets together every other week to continually assess and develop new ideas and techniques that meet the needs of our teachers and students.


The DLT immediately asked critical questions to frame their work:

  • How can we continue to promote authentic learning?
  • How can we implement platforms/websites that teachers can use indefinitely, even after the pandemic?
  • How can we use platforms as replacements for techniques that teachers used previously in in-person classrooms?
  • How can we re-create formative assessments for students in the virtual classroom?
  • What can we do to effectively assist teachers and directly connect with them?

Our goal was to help teachers navigate today’s circumstances and build student engagement in a way that was easy for teachers to understand. But it was quickly clear that the questions weren’t enough to guide us; we also needed feedback from teachers with detail about their needs that could keep us on track. We developed a comprehensive survey for teachers, and the data from it demonstrated that they wanted short professional development sessions from their peers to help connect content to technology. Data from the surveys also helped us to understand which platforms teachers implemented most and therefore which ones we should focus on.

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TEACHING STRATEGIESHow to Make the Most of Student Feedback During Distance LearningIt’s harder to read a class when students are learning at home, so teachers need to explicitly ask for feedback.By Zachary HerrmannNovember 6, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

As teachers, we constantly look for clues that can help us understand the impact of our decisions. Are we doing things that are working? How do we know?

Do students appear engaged? What sense are students making? Who is participating, and who isn’t? Should I step in or let this discussion go a bit longer? We rely on data to help us answer these questions.

When I’m teaching in a physical classroom, the data seems rich and abundant. I look for patterns in participation and body language. I look for nonverbal cues that give me some sense of what students might be thinking. I listen for small bits of conversations that help me visualize a picture of what is going on. All of this data is invaluable to me because it helps inform my next steps.

This rich, analog data stream from my in-person classroom has turned into a multichannel digital data stream in my virtual classroom. The data looks different, and I’m much less experienced at interpreting it.

I’m left with questions for which I have little data to support any answers. Is the student on my computer screen with a confused and concerned look on their face lost in what we’re discussing, or are they reading the news? Why did that student just turn off their video? Is any of this working?

In my efforts to get more visibility into what is actually happening in my virtual classroom, I created new routines for gathering, analyzing, and using feedback.


1. Create feedback routines: In-person teaching gave me plenty of informal ways to gather data and feedback. I have to be far more intentional in the virtual setting. I now use a feedback form with four questions. The first section is focused on me, the teacher: “What is one thing you found helpful?” and “What is one thing that could be improved?” The second section is focused on them, my students: “What is one thing you are proud of from this class?” and “What is one thing you’d like to improve on?”

Since I created this feedback form, I’ve gathered thousands of data points that help me better understand my own teaching, as well as my students’ learning.

2. Interpret feedback thoughtfully: I immediately found the feedback illuminating. Overwhelmingly, my students appreciated the breakout rooms, wanted clearer directions for the group activities, and needed more organization with all of the digital resources and links I referenced during class. If I hadn’t explicitly asked my students for feedback, I likely would have never considered these issues.

However, students didn’t agree on everything. Some students indicated that they loved how I incorporated the chat box into our activities, while others felt overwhelmed by it. Some felt that we were moving too fast; others felt that some of the activities dragged on too long. This feedback was also helpful, as it underscored the reality that different students were experiencing my class in different ways.

3. Learn from students’ experiences: Although I created the feedback form to learn more about how my students were experiencing my teaching, there was an additional positive benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. Some students described the approaches their other teachers were using. This surfaced a new favorite question for me to ask my students: “Is there something one of your teachers is doing that you wished all of your teachers were doing?”

Students are the ones who are actually experiencing various approaches across teachers and virtual classrooms. They are uniquely positioned to share what is working and what is not.

4. Share with students what you’re learning: I was explicit with my students about how much I valued their feedback and shared the themes that emerged.

I tried to explicitly connect instructional decisions I was making in the moment to the feedback that I had received. When my actions Kira Retana appeared to contradict a theme from the feedback, I’d justify why I was doing what I was doing. In this way, I was hoping to build trust with my students that I was listening to their feedback so that they would feel encouraged to continue to provide me with thoughtful ideas on how to improve the class.

5. Learn to love feedback: Feedback can be difficult to hear, particularly when it contradicts how we see ourselves.

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EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATIONCultivating Self-Motivation in PreschoolFor the very youngest students, providing space and autonomy to learn through play may be the key to promoting a lifelong love of learning.By Tom HobsonNovember 3, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

One of my friend’s kids was a boy of strong and abiding passions. From the time he was a preschooler, whenever he saw me he would enthuse about outer space or his electric trains. As he got older, he became a collector of knives, loving nothing more than to set out a careful display of his hardware, complete with a lecture on the proper use and care of each. He delved deeply into music for a time, teaching himself the guitar. Later he shifted his focus to bicycles, building new ones from old parts. He always had something going on in that wonderful, curious brain of his.

When the boy was in high school, I happened to meet one of his teachers. When I told him that I knew his student, he said, “I worry about him. He has motivation problems.”

Surprised, I shared my observations about the kid I had gotten to know over many years. He replied, “I had no idea. I wish he would open up to me.”

When I later discussed this conversation with the boy, he grimaced. I encouraged him to talk to his teacher, “It’s obvious he hasn’t gotten to know the real you.”

“I don’t want my teachers to know anything about me,” he said. “Whenever teachers know what a kid likes, they try to take it away and use it as, like, a punishment or a reward for good grades or something.”


When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home health-care company Buurtzorg, was asked, “How do you motivate your employees?” he replied, “I don’t. Seems patronizing.” This is the leader of a company with 10,000 employees that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. Buurtzorg has minimal management and no human resources department, and runs on the principles of “trust and self-organization.”

Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher’s Kira Retana main jobs is to motivate children. There’s a widely held belief that students, like employees, are primarily motivated—or at least can be motivated—to greater achievement through rewards and punishments.

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ARTS INTEGRATIONStrategies From the Dramatic Arts Can Enhance Student EngagementWhen students explore content using dramatic scripts, they can make gains in reading fluency and comprehension, while having fun.By Kevin PeaseOctober 30, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

These days, many teachers struggle when their tried-and-true pedagogy, developed and refined over years of practice, doesn’t translate to distance learning. Many are embracing the disruption brought about by online learning to familiarize themselves with flexible methodologies that work well in that context, including arts integration strategies. Those that borrow from the dramatic arts, such as readers theater and teacher in role, can be particularly effective.

These engaging approaches have been around a long time, and they encourage interaction and collaboration and make content accessible for multiple levels of learners, from emerging readers through high school seniors. They can also inject a much-needed dose of fun into online lessons.


Readers theater includes the following elements:

  • Actors/readers use scripts in presentation, and memorization is not prioritized.
  • Actors/readers are stationary and do not use theatrical devices (e.g., no staging, scenery, props, lighting, or costumes).
  • Nuances of the story are communicated primarily through vocal expression.
  • Scripts are prepublished, widely available, and intended for repetitive use.

By following a script, students are in a constant state of decoding, and as members of an interdependent ensemble, they are responsible for following their script closely and anticipating their own speaking role, thus increasing focus and engagement.

Readers theater scripts are designed to be read and reread multiple times, making their use in the online classroom particularly beneficial for second language learners or other students working on decoding and fluency. Repetition increases retention for all student participants.

In many ways, readers theater is an ideal arts integration distance learning strategy because it’s not constrained by the trappings of a typical theater performance (props, costumes, memorization, and the like), and many students’ home learning space can become a stage.

For example, I recently worked with the teachers of rising first graders who were in virtual summer school; there were serious concerns that for these students, the last months of kindergarten had been so challenging that they were losing interest in or even regressing in reading. We created a short readers theater script that delivered content about the happy face spider (Theridion grallator, native to Hawaii). The script included a solo speaking line for each student, opportunities for gestures that physicalized their understanding and were visible from the cameras, and humor.

Over the course of several weeks, students performed the script multiple times, building retention of the content and reading fluency. A final Zoom performance demonstrated the students’ advances in their reading levels, as well as their joy and confidence in what they had learned.

The literacy benefits of readers theater are many: Students read more quickly and with greater fluency, and demonstrate greater reading comprehension. There are also indicators that students who participate show increased focus and motivation in school, a greater sense of purpose in their learning, a more positive attitude toward reading, and increased confidence—all of which translate to happier students and more joyful learning environments.

One of the greatest strengths of readers theater as an online teaching strategy is its adaptability. Chances are, no matter what you’re teaching and at what level, there’s a script available; shared online teacher resources often include scripts and templates. A quick internet search for “readers theater scripts” and a grade level will yield free resources, too. Many educational publishers also offer scripts (see this guide).

For teachers looking to take readers theater to the next level, writing their own scripts is an option. By authoring a script, a teacher can tailor a differentiated line for each student participant, crafted to meet their reading level or to include sight words. Reluctant readers can be paired with a partner to build confidence and fluency, and the content of a script can be adapted as student understanding grows. Students can also be taught to write their own scripts and thereby build their writing skills.


Teacher in role is a similarly engaging instructional strategy that has long been used in educational theater but is becoming mainstream. With in-role teaching, a teacher/facilitator assumes the role of a character in a story or of an expert on a given subject.

Students research a story or subject and are invited to participate in a conversation with the teacher/facilitator, asking questions born of their research. While participating in the conversation with their teacher/facilitator, students are also placed in-role as researchers, thus upping their investment in the drama.

Teachers can enhance the online learning experience by using a simple prop or costume if they like, but the primary objective is to remain faithful to their role and while in Kira Retana conversation with students.

An example: Eighth-grade students are immersed in a unit on the American Civil War; they assume the role of historians invited to a function where they hear a talk given by Gertie, Harriet Tubman’s adopted daughter, played by the teacher. She shares a firsthand account of her mother’s life, and the historians ask her questions.

Posted in education

STUDENT ENGAGEMENTAdapting an Effective Math Collaboration Activity for Distance LearningAn instructional coach and math teacher who developed a powerful model for student collaboration have tweaked it for the pandemic.By Ashley TaplinOctober 26, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Cooperative learning has been highlighted by educational researchers John Hattie and Robert Marzano as a high-yield strategy that “adds value to whole-class instruction and to individual work” by boosting both engagement and collaboration. Last year, I leveraged Hattie and Marzano’s research to partner with high school math teacher Kathleen Janysek in creating a cooperative learning strategy we called Try It, Talk It, Color It, Check It.

When we implemented the strategy, we used the three components that Hattie and Marzano indicate are essential to success—structure, small groups, and explicit instruction on how to work effectively in groups—and the results were dramatic in terms of the look, sound, and feel of Kathleen’s Algebra 1 classroom. Silence turned into discussion and debate, and the students’ dependence on their teacher transformed into independence. Ultimately, Kathleen and I created a new approach that replaced traditional whiteboard practice and engaged all students rather than most.

When distance learning became widespread, however, we needed to revisit the Try It, Talk It, Color It, Check It model to see if we could adapt it for a virtual classroom. Our approach involved anticipating the emotional and academic needs of our students and thinking through, step by step, how the activity could unfold, from presenting a problem to soliciting feedback.


Kathleen and I started by looking at tools that could foster strong student discourse and incorporate the structure, small groups, and explicit instruction Hattie and Marzano recommend. We landed on Jamboard to create a structured space that was clear and effective and used breakout rooms for small group settings.

To guide students to work effectively in groups, given the isolation our students are facing, we turned to social and emotional learning (SEL) prompts to infuse that component with intentional building of relationship skills. We also aimed to make expectations for student participation clear.


In a virtual setting, the Try It, Talk It, Color It, Check It process began with independent work time. We displayed a problem and gave students one or two minutes to try to solve it on their own. This independent Try It work time was essential to give students an opportunity to generate their own ideas and/or questions about the problem.

When time was up, we assigned students to breakout rooms with an SEL-focused prompt (e.g., “What makes you feel happiest?”). The prompts we selected, examples of “listening circles,” were supported by CASEL’s research on helping students develop their social awareness and relationship skills.

Many of the students in the class were in the routine of having their cameras off and microphones muted during class time; we also faced the challenge of students going into breakout rooms and not engaging with each other unless we showed them the way. Incorporating SEL prompts broke down these barriers in several ways.

First, students had an entry point for speaking right when they went into the breakout rooms, and they were more energetic in their discussions—more so than when we didn’t use SEL prompts at all. Furthermore, because the prompts were tied to SEL competencies, discussing them in breakout rooms moved beyond the idea that they were just for fun, and we began seeing the conversations as purposeful student interactions, reinforcing the notion that all voices are heard and valued in this process.

Once students were comfortable sharing with each other in each breakout room, they started the mathematical problem-solving process of explaining their strategies and solutions with each other—the Talk It phase of the model. When they agreed on an answer, they were directed to use a speaker and scribe structure: the scribe dragged the problem to a specific spot on Jamboard and the speaker explained their steps for the scribe to type up. Finally, students discussed how confident they were in their solution, which the scribe then noted with a color-coded sticky note (Color It) on the Jamboard (green = “We got it and can teach others;” yellow = “We have ideas but are a bit uncertain;” pink = “Our answer is probably wrong and we need help.”).

After about five minutes, students returned from breakout rooms to the main session, and Kathleen debriefed by sharing a selected group’s Jamboard page and asking a member of that group to share out. The color coding helped us pinpoint areas of need for further instruction and discussion, and it was exciting to hear students share their thinking and group’s process with added confidence.

After each problem, we repeated the process of Try It, Talk It, Color It, Check It, and while that was happening, Kathleen and I bounced among breakout rooms. As coaching partners, Kathleen and I listened to and supported student dialogue and would quickly confer together to identify which group we would select to explain or clear up misconceptions—the Check It phase.


In debriefing the process with students, we sought their feedback using the last page of the Jamboard to measure their engagement and confidence in their understanding of the content. Kira Retana explained that this feedback would help inform our instructional practice and enable us to also follow up with any students who needed additional support. I loved how this part of the process provided a safe space for students to reflect on the activity and give honest feedback—and take ownership of their learning.

We were excited to see students become highly engaged—one student unmuted to say how much fun they had during this activity. Seeing and hearing their feedback confirmed how powerful this strategy is, even in a virtual setting, and how collaboration and rich mathematical discussion can take place anywhere if we intentionally use tools to enhance learning.

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GAME-BASED LEARNINGA Guide to Teaching Writing With MinecraftUsing the popular game in station rotation activities during distance learning is a way to bring an element of play and collaboration to writing assignments.By Matthew FarberOctober 23, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick suggests that all of school should be like kindergarten. By this, he means that students should be invited to learn through what he calls the 4 Ps: projects, peers, passion, and play. Instead of projects that demonstrate what students have already learned (e.g., a diorama), students should learn in the process of making, sharing, and reflecting on artifacts.

Teachers can achieve the 4 Ps in physical classrooms through a station rotation model, as students visit stations with BrainPop or PBS LearningMedia videos, materials needed for project design, or other components.

Nowadays, station rotation models are somewhat limited by social and physical distancing measures, and it may be tempting to resort to direct instruction, but we mustn’t, because collaboration is so important in learning.

As it happens, there are innovative solutions to station rotation modelsin socially and physically distanced classrooms. Blended learning expert Catlin Tucker shares many approaches, mixing teacher-led stations with ones that are online and offline. In this arrangement, students can learn from the teacher and then share in small groups—virtually or distanced—and engage in online collaborations (e.g., via Google Slides).


In the spirit of bringing in an element of play and peer collaboration, how would stations look if they were set up in a game world like Minecraft: Education Edition? In a conversation with Meenoo Rami, a senior program manager at Microsoft, high school teacher Joe Dillon and Christina Cantrill, associate director of national programs at the National Writing Project, discussed that question.

Dillon took ideas from that conversation and collaborated with writing teachers with experience in grades 3 to 8 to design some lessons. He built the worlds with the help of a colleague and student Minecraft enthusiasts, who brought a passion for the game and creative twists to the lessons that teachers had written and sketched. The worlds and the lessons within were playtested by young people engaged in the Denver Writing Project’s Young Writers Camp this past summer.

One of the lessons is an adaptation of Georgia Heard’s Six-Room-Poem activity. Last spring, Dillon consulted with teacher Marina Lombardo, whose students had just completed this activity as part of a remote learning poetry unit.

In the activity, students divide a sheet of paper into six parts or “rooms.” They then follow prompts for writing descriptive text in each room. When Dillon and Lombardo re-created the activity in Minecraft, students moved through a maze, visiting rooms with information on different aspects of poetry writing. As in the paper activity, the goal was to help students write or revise a poem.

The lesson cleverly aligns station rotation models in a digital game world. “Marina came up with the idea of taking a poetry writing lesson, which worked well in distance learning, to become a maze where students would discover different stations or the six concepts,” Dillon said when we spoke this fall. “Marina drew the maze on paper, and we handed that to a teenage builder I knew from the Writers Camp,” who built it in Minecraft.

There are prompts throughout the maze. Some are posted on digital chalkboards (blocks unique to the Education Edition), while others are “read” by non-playable characters (NPCs)—characters in the world that are not controlled by players. NPCs serve as docents, guiding students in a manner similar to the way teachers work in station rotation models in physical classrooms.

One of the messages from an NPC I encountered read, “As you travel through the maze, you will discover six rooms and meet friends. Each room is unique and will offer you some practice with ways to make your writing descriptive. You’ll want to have an object or an image in mind. Need inspiration? Take a picture inside the maze if you like. Then begin searching for the six rooms.”

Beneath the text were two options: “Camera please” and “Go to the first room.” The camera block, also unique to Education Edition, is a screenshot tool for exporting images out of the game. Students Kira Retana can build, then record and reflect on their work using this block.

Each of the 10 lessons Dillon and his collaborators created invites students to write and also to build. “The idea is that these are lessons that work without Minecraft first,” Dillon said. “Then, we put them into Minecraft.”

The lessons invite students to put their Minecraft skills to work. They can delve deeper into the lesson, rebuild the maze, or expand on the lesson. These opportunities seldom exist in physical classrooms, where teachers may design stations with little student input. With the Minecraft lessons, students can change the worlds, and teachers can, too. Each of these worlds can be played as they are, or remixed by teachers.

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ARTS INTEGRATIONTeaching Drama in Distance LearningTips and strategies to help literature and drama teachers adapt theatrical pedagogy for the Zoom stage.By Shana BestockSeptember 15, 2020

Kira Nicole Retana Inmate 2011
Kira Retana

Using theater as a teaching tool integrates social, emotional, and cognitive development while meeting academic benchmarks. Let’s say you’re teaching a classic novel. Performing literature—either directly from the book as readers’ theater or with a script adaptation—allows students to express themselves authentically in a virtual space.

Start by reading a text or script through, trading off so that as many students as possible get a chance to read the main parts. Engage students in a short discussion about broad themes, and brainstorm ideas on problem-solving technical challenges and design opportunities. For instance, you might ask: Is there a fight? Flying? Disappearing? A dragon? How will we transfer these to the “stage”? Don’t solve anything just yet; the goal at this point is just to open the door to possibilities.

Cast the show by inviting students to write down three roles they’d like to play and one role they’d rather not. Invite students to share their reasoning (“I really want a character who dies” or “I don’t want a lot of lines”). This is powerful information for you—who they choose and how they express those desires can give you insights into your students that extend far beyond the play itself. For instance, a highly capable student might request “not a lot of lines,” and a very quiet, shy, nice student might want to play a flamboyantly evil villain. Uncovering these fears of failure to meet expectations, unexpressed large emotions, and other insights can help you understand the student in academic settings.

Look and listen for the places where students are just reciting lines. Stop and ask if they understand what a line means and how they can communicate that to an audience. Talk about behavior, not just emotion. For instance, student actors tend to want to act sad, for example, instead of thinking about how their character would express sadness—fighting back tears, pretending to be happy, gasping for breath trying to process bad news, etc.

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ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATIONBringing Core Content to Life With Outdoor EducationWhen students step out of the classroom and explore the concepts they’ve learned about, they deepen their understanding of science, themselves, and the world.October 8, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

This video is part of our How Learning Happens series, which explores teaching practices grounded in the science of learning and human development. 

Edutopia developed this series in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute, with support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

Special thanks to the Science of Learning and Development Alliance, the Forum for Youth Investment, the National AfterSchool Association, the Wallace Foundation, EducationCounsel, and Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center.