Designing with students in mind

Julia Ciciora

I first learned about the engineering design process in a class called IPRO (Interprofessional Projects Program) while doing my undergrad at the Illinois Institute of Technology. As a non-engineer major, I didn’t think much of it but did my part as a member of the two required interprofessional projects. The class required students from different majors to work together to design solutions. The program originally started with companies bringing design problems to the class for students to work together to resolve. I was a member of the pilot group that actually got to explore the design thinking process from the beginning and explore design problems our group identified and wanted to pursue. We were encouraged to examine our surroundings, complete empathy research, and explore current solutions to our design problem and how those solutions could be improved or reimagined. The interprofessional groups got to present their design problem and possible solution at the end of the semester to propose working on the solution with a company the following semester.

Fast-forward 3 years. I had just finished my first year of teaching and my masters in science education. I knew exactly how I wanted my science class to look and how I was going to get there.  That summer, my principal requested that the 9th grade science team attend the Summer Design Program (SDP), led by The Chicago Public Education Fund and TrueSchool. We were tasked with describing a problem we wanted to solve. Being the problem solvers that we are, my team described the problem and imagined a beautiful solution to go with it.

We got to the first SDP workshop and it was full of enthusiastic educators ready to work on their solutions to their own problems. After a couple of icebreaker activities I started to hear phrases like “design thinking”, “problem statements”, and “empathy research”. Then came the post-its and charts. TrueSchool has adapted the process engineers use to create design solutions to help educators design solutions as well. I had only seen the process work from an engineering standpoint, but had not thought of expanding that thinking to social processes!  Needless to say, the problem we thought we were going to solve evolved and morphed many times throughout that summer.

This year a few teachers were tasked with piloting personalized learning at my school. I was provided with a chromebook cart and some words of encouragement and left to my own devices. I went into the process of redesigning/adapting my curriculum thinking I knew exactly what I wanted this to look like in my classroom. I visualized students working at their own pace, using different resources based on their needs, and demonstrating their mastery of set learning targets when they were ready. I worked hard to ensure that I had a variety of resources available to students, very much like a flipped classroom. My colleague and I wrote up notes, made videos, provided tiered practice all directly aligned to learning targets and presented on a pretty electronic platform.  I realized the first day I tried this new system that my picture perfect personalized classroom was not going to be what I originally imagined. It was disappointing because I felt like I had enough teaching experience to have anticipated the struggles I encountered.

I reverted to my previous class structures and started thinking about what was missing.  I realized that I had been trying to undertake this entire design process on my own without leveraging the assets available to me, my colleagues. While I was the only teacher implementing personalized learning in science, there were other teachers on my grade level that were also trying this strategy in their classroom. I was really struggling with keeping students on task, especially while every students could theoretically be working on something different at the same time. When I opened up about my struggles I realized I was not alone AND that they had great ideas for implementation that I hadn’t considered, such as writing a “to-do” list on post-it notes for students that were having a particularly hard time adapting to setting their own schedule. I adapted their suggestions to my class and was ready for iteration two.

While it didn’t fail as miserably as the first try, it was still a struggle and much more frustrating the second time around. My students were unhappy and I was unhappy. The platform I was using was very linear, where the skill was listed with all of the resources below it. Students that mastered a particular skill could move on to the next one and those that didn’t had to continue working through the given resources. I didn’t understand why my students couldn’t use data from their assessments to determine what resources they needed to help them achieve mastery of a particular skill and if they had achieved mastery the first time around, then simply move on to the next skill (I just laughed out loud typing that sentence).

After a few class periods of trying things out, I realized that I was trying to design something for my students and not once had I considered asking them what they need. I started to encourage my students to participate in the design process with me by providing feedback about the platform I was using. This was their chance to influence their learning environment. I was slightly devastated when I received the an email from one of my hardest working students:

“I wanted to just tell you my thoughts on the Personalized Learning Plan. I, personally, don’t feel that it’s helping me out at all. I don’t feel that I’m learning anything… I’m used to having the teacher introduce the lesson, teaching it, and having us do problems from the book or worksheets from the book.”

She was too shy to talk to me about it in class, but I was so proud of her for having the courage to send me that email. This email led to many more one on one conversations with my students about what they view as “teaching” and “learning”. I realized that before I can implement any new systems, I would have to guide my students to being much more open minded about what teaching and learning look like.

Even after a whole school year of iterations, my design is not complete. After a few hits to the ego, I had to remind myself that my design is dependent on people, teenagers at that! As I opened myself up to the design process, I made sure to give my students a voice in the process.  I encouraged students to not just complain to the wind or under their breath, but to use this as an opportunity to shape their education. I have to view this problem from my students perspective with my students to fully understand the obstacles I have to overcome as we are designing for them. This has not been easy and many times throughout the school year, I have stopped moving forward on this project because I need to “cover the content”. I always end up coming back to this project because I want my students to have a sense of ownership in their learning. Teachers do not just solve problems. We design solutions that are adaptable and differentiated based on the students  that we service.

About Julia Ciciora
Julia is currently a math and science teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective enrollment Chicago public high school. Julia participated in TrueSchool’s program in 2014-2015 and also served as a mentor in 2015-2016. Her school’s project combined the math and science department to create a STEM department that worked to design an inter/intradisciplinary STEM scope and sequence. Through this work, topics and standards have been reorganized to teach topics when students are cognitively prepared as well as to bridge between sciences topics, between math topics, and math and science topics. As a result, she has been working on the STEM I team, which piloted the initiative with 9th grade students. In 2016, Brooks welcomed a new challenge in opening an academic center open to academically gifted students in the 7th grade. As a result, the 7th grade students have been taking the STEM I curriculum with Julia leading the science initiative, while continuing to teach 9th grade math. In addition to welcoming the 7th graders, she has also been piloting personalized learning in all of her classes. Julia is excited to share her experiences and provide support to others.


Creating the time and space for authentic parent engagement in the design process

Jim Kline

Teachers and school leaders are busy people. I know this firsthand because I am one. And in the crux of the school year, I know how easy it is to go about tackling problems through the lens of students and teachers: two stakeholders that are critical in student learning. In reflecting on some of my biggest lessons learned through my work at TrueSchool, there is one question I can’t seem to let go: what is the ideal model for parent involvement in the school design process?

As a teacher in New Orleans, I rarely have the time to open my classroom doors and invite parents in for open-brainstorming sessions and the “how might we” exercises we do with our kids. Parents are working, I tell myself. Or parents are seemingly satisfied if they aren’t complaining, right? Not quite.

I remember one story, in particular, a few years ago from my project-based seminar. My seniors were pitching local policy proposals to our city council members, and one of my student’s mother was in the audience watching. After the presentations, she asked me what kind of mobilization and voter registration we were doing to ensure these ideas could live beyond our presentations. A light bulb went off – why was I treating this presentation as the ‘end point’ for their ideas?

This one comment sparked a two-year obsession to empower my students to push for real change in our community. A few legislative bills and one successful state law later, my students are leaving their mark every year in our community through advocacy and research. As a teacher, I needed the time, space and process to meaningfully engage my student’s parents in a way that wasn’t just “checking the box” for parent engagement.

At TrueSchool Studio, we put teachers in the driver’s seat to create innovative solutions for students. Too many of our school models are outdated and broken, and we have to work on pushing research to innovate from within our schools. Our model replaces the notion that outside professional development providers are the agents of change; in fact, we believe that teachers and leaders are the real R+D departments at schools all across the country. We innovate not for the sake of innovation, but for equity – because when one school discovers a new learning model, we all benefit. But what role do parents play in this R+D? What role should they play?

Over the past few years, TrueSchool has worked with hundreds of teachers, school leaders, parents, and community members in designing new learning models and solutions on the ground level, across traditional public, charter, magnet and independent schools. Whether it is at the beginning stages of the design process or generating implementation feedback, there’s been incredible growth among schools in creating the space and process for engaging parents in a meaningful way. One school in particular, the Immaculate Conception School in downtown Los Angeles, designed a workshop series to address communication gaps between parents and educators, all generated from community focus groups and stakeholder surveys.

Creating the space for parent voices is the first step, but TrueSchool also builds the know-how for educators like myself to discover and incorporate our parent’s ideas into better solutions for our schools, leading to better outcomes for all. We couldn’t be more excited by the potential and power of parents on our design teams, and above all else, creating time, space and the processes to solve our school’s most pressing challenges.

About Jim Kline
Jim Kline is a teacher leader at Sci Academy, one of the top performing charter schools in New Orleans. He teaches a project-based seminar in design thinking as well as leads the school’s college readiness initiative. He is passionate about project-based learning and the limitless potential of our teenagers. In the past few years, Jim’s students have changed a state law, advocated state representatives to reform education, and pressed city council members for meaningful oversight into our city’s criminal justice system. Jim’s education experience began in St. John Parish, Louisiana, as a high school civics teacher with Teach For America. Jim has also served as a Curriculum Specialist and Instructor for both Teach For America and The New Teacher Project (TNTP), and has won numerous teaching awards, including the St. John Parish District Teacher of theYear Award, and the New Schools for New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds a B.A in Public Policy from Rutgers University, and a Masters in Educational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.

VOTE TrueSchool for Tory Burch Foundation Fellowship!


The Tory Burch Foundation launched its inaugural Fellows Competition to select 10 entrepreneurs for a yearlong fellowship. Their mission is to empower women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.

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With your help we can continue to grow our impact by empowering educators with the time, space and process to lead system-change solutions in their schools and regions. We have worked with over 1,100 educators, impacting over 50,000 students with innovative solutions to solve pressing challenges in their schools.

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Your support will help us become a 2016 fellow and enable us to grow our reach to impact more educators + students! Please share this article or voting link with your friends and family to amplify our reach!


“The Mirage” or The Dream? A discussion of what might be if we think boldly…

TNTP’s “The Mirage” sets out to identify bright spots of teacher growth to determine what type, frequency and delivery of teacher professional development yield the most improvement. Researchers identified “improvers,” as 19-30% of teachers in 95% of schools they surveyed and compared their experience to “non-improvers.”* Surprisingly, both groups had very similar levels of engagement and satisfaction with professional development activities. The key differences between “improvers” and “non-improvers” are openness to feedback and awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses. TNTP’s deeper investigation revealed an underlying lack of trust or confidence in evaluation practices, no clear standards for improvement, and disjointed support efforts prohibit meaningful teacher growth.

“The Mirage” illuminates the lack of understanding about what makes professional development effective, and more importantly, ignites a broader discussion about where we go from here.

We believe the best way forward is to set a bold vision for reimagining the teaching profession and defining mindsets, skills, and competencies needed to educate 21st century students.

At TrueSchool we have hypothesized several core mindsets and competencies for education innovation. This is just a start to how we might frame teacher mindsets of the 21st century:

  • Demonstrate deep empathy with students and community
  • Identify and seize opportunities from change
  • Collaborate, create and problem solve as a team and community
  • Actualize a vision by taking a big goal and breaking it down into specific actions
  • Leverage existing resources and assets
  • Take risks, fail forward fast
  • Measure, track, and reflect on impact
  • Continuously iterate and adapt based on findings
  • Lead implementation, impact and sustainability at scale

As a nation, we have redefined what it means to be a student in the 21st century through the adoption of rigorous standards and a shifted focus to critical thinking and growth-oriented learning. Teachers need aligned standards that clearly define what mastery of teaching and instruction now require.

Schools can create the cultures to cultivate human potential and excellence, for both students and teachers. School leadership that promotes excellence, and encourages learning forward rather than attaining perfection, cultivates a growth mindset and creates safe space for people to test, challenge, and improve themselves. Schools can reorganize education by studying the current experience and needs of their students and crafting new roles for teachers that allow for specialization and diversification of responsibilities. For example, teachers could specialize in an area like data and evaluation, innovation, or curriculum and become the expert for their grade or school, assuming the responsibility to ensure all teachers are moving toward mastery of that competency and provide additional coaching or support.

Districts are key levers for transformational change at scale. As districts have a broad reach over access to resources and data for many schools, they can critically study all efforts that improve student and teacher growth, and facilitate cross-school collaboration to test and scale effective systems, tools, trainings, and innovations, to ensure that all schools deliver an excellent education to each student.

The findings of “The Mirage” undoubtedly ignite the need for a fresh look at how we evaluate and support teachers. If we reimagine the status quo and explore approaches that align the evaluation to what teachers need, just like we do with our students, we can create a more effective, rewarding, and just education system for students and teachers alike.


* TNTP identified teachers who improved significantly using multiple definitions of growth. They analyzed simple and detailed change in the district rating and grouped teachers into quartiles, assessing who was making the most and least growth over a two- to three-year period. TNTP tracked this type of movement across four different measures of growth: change in total observation scores, change in value-added scores, change in total evaluation scores and change in standardized overall evaluation scores. For a detailed explanation of TNTP’s methods for identifying “improvers” please see page 44 of “The Mirage.”

“Build Better Edtech Products By Connecting Early And Often With Teachers”

Startup Stock Photos

Many edtech developers create what they believe is the best and brightest edtech solution only to find that teachers aren’t using it at the rates they expected – one of the reasons this can happen is when developers have not developed understanding of the teacher experience. Falkenthal of UP Global names the top reasons to engage with educators both early and often.She also includes the best strategic questions to ask teacher to elicit the feedback you need. 

“100 Schools Worth Visiting”

100 schools

Tom Vander Ark has compiled 100 schools worth visiting across the US all the way from elementary and K-8 schools through high school. One of the most-prized association skills innovators possess is to see awesome ideas in other settings and fields and steal them to apply to a new context. This list provides lots of opportunities to learn and adapt new models or programs to your school!

“Why Aren’t More Schools Using Free, Open Tools?”

open software

Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania is exploring what it means to use open source tools rather than closed systems whenever possible.It has seemingly led to more student ownership over devices and their learning. “While we have the ‘must do’ layer, there’s also that little bit of subversion here, giving kids that little bit of creativity and maybe a ray of hope,” Reisinger, the district’s technology director, said. “I want them to learn that learning is not all about what someone else preordains for you. It’s OK to tinker and play with things.” How might using open tech turn students into creators rather than consumers of technology while also meeting rigorous standards?

“Classroom technology can make learning more dangerous, and that’s a good thing”

tinkeringGreg Toppo says, “Good teaching is not about playing it safe. It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again. More teachers might be willing to embrace technology if they saw it as a way to inject more of the dangers of learning into their classrooms.”

Read on to hear from game designers David Langendoen and Spencer Grey – they have seen surprising results in how students engage with their Mission US game at home versus at school and when those students are willing to take more risks.

“13 Barriers to Education Innovation”

barriers to edu innTom Vander Ark shares his opinion on the top thirteen barriers facing innovators in education. The list includes little R&D in schools, limited capacity, and a compliance mindset rather than an approach of getting it done no matter what. A common theme is the fear and lack of acceptance around failure to learn.


On the flip side, Carri Schneider shares 12 Education Innovation Mindsets for Leaders.

Which barriers are you challenging in education?

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