A Conversation with Google’s Jaime Casap

A Conversation with Google’s Jaime Casap

June 11, 2018 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO & Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning
“Just call it what it is!”

Jaime Casap, the Education Evangelist at Google, does not beat around the bush, especially when talking about his personal experience growing up in poverty and how that has shaped the lens through which he sees the world. Confronting uncomfortable truths is often a catalyst for change, and Jaime is an expert when it comes to “calling it what it is.” We are thrilled to honor Jaime as our Learning Pioneer at the 2018 Innovative Learning Awards later this month.

I recently sat down with Jaime to talk about his insights on education and how they are driven from his own experiences.

You have talked about how education can be a great equalizer, and you have shared your experience growing up and the positive impact education had on your life. How does your education and upbringing give you a different lens or point of view than others in the field?

I grew up with a single mother, on welfare, in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. I am conscious of the fact that there are very few people in positions of influence with my background, and I think there are two possible explanations for how I got to where I am. One is that I’m a super genius with a 400 IQ. The other explanation is that there are millions of kids who are just like me, who have the same capacity, same capability, but they just don’t have the same opportunity. I believe the latter: there are opportunities that are missing. And I want to focus on what we need to build to give kids those opportunities.

Every year, I am asked to speak at graduations and I tell students my story because I remember when I would be ashamed of my background and hide where I came from. Subconsciously or consciously, we know that people make assumptions about poor people: that they are poor because they are lazy; they are poor because they are dumb; they are poor because it’s their fault. I tell students that the most important thing is to be proud of who you are and where you came from. Look at what you were able to accomplish given the circumstances that you had. I tell them that who they are and where they came from is actually a competitive advantage because they look at things from a different perspective and that different perspective is critically important to companies and organizations when they are making decisions.

One reason I have been successful in my career is my different point of view. I am still the same hoodlum, I just have some more education and a little more influence.

At PowerMyLearning, we believe that students are most successful when they are supported by a triangle of strong learning relationships between students, teachers, and families. Can you describe a learning relationship you had as a child that helped shape your future?

At PS 111 when I was going into fourth grade, I got assigned to Mrs. Riddick, the teacher who was known for being way too hard and downright mean. But the reality was that she had high expectations and wanted to see good results. I remember my first assignment, a two-page current events paper. When she gave it back to me, I saw she had given me an “F” and covered the paper in red marks. At the top was a note to come see her. I had always gotten straight A’s, so this was new territory for me. When I went up to talk to her—and I’ll never forget this—she said, “Compared to the other students, you have a ‘B’ but I’m not comparing you to other students, I’m comparing you to what I think you’re capable of and this isn’t good enough.”

Up until that moment, I believed I just needed to do better than the other kids in my class; that’s who I was competing against. Mrs. Riddick was the first person to tell me, “Your grade has nothing to do with other students or the class average. It has to do with you and your potential.”  That blew my mind, and it still does. Today, I don’t compare myself to other people; I compare myself to my own ability.

How do you think leaders of organizations like ours can best strengthen the triangle of relationships for all students?

We need to do a better job giving parents what they need. It’s like the old adage: teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Well, you have to give him a fishing rod first! Give parents the tools, and they will use those tools.

I think when you’re educated and you’ve gone through the system yourself, then you know to get involved in your kids’ school. In my case, I don’t think that anyone ever told my mother she should be involved in my education. We cannot make assumptions based on what we experience as educated adults that all parents know they should automatically engage. Some parents experience barriers—whether it’s because of culture, language, time—so we need to make it easy, like you all are doing with Family Playlists. You need a system that gives parents permission and encourages them to get involved. This is not just about poor parents, it’s about all parents.

We have seen that poorly executed technology integration can hurt learning relationships, such as when schools invest in software that tries to play the role of teacher or a parent. I’ve also heard you say that you will be disappointed if technology only makes teachers more efficient and that you would like to see technology instead influence how learning happens. What is the right approach to technology and innovation in the classroom?

My goal is to stop getting us to ask the question, “What does the future classroom look like?” Instead, we should approach it from the world we live in now, which is there is no future classroom because the future classroom is on Monday. Look at it this way, every time you go to buy a new car, you expect it to be more advanced than when you bought one the last time.  My first car didn’t have airbags but my second one did.  My second one didn’t have anti-lock brakes, but my third one did. My third one didn’t have satellite radio but my fourth one did. We expect advancement and improvement.  I think we need the same approach in education.

The future classroom needs to start right now. It’s this idea of a cultural shift and thinking in terms of iteration and innovation, where we’re constantly measuring, constantly changing things, and constantly doing things differently based on assessments and feedback. This way, we’re always moving forward. 

The future classroom will look different next year just like the future car will look different next year. Continuous learning is what it’s all about, and I know PowerMyLearning shares this belief with me too.

Jaime Casap

Jaime teaches a 10th grade communication class at the Phoenix Coding Academy and is an adjunct professor at Arizona State University.


Hear from Jaylen, Our Student of the Year

Hear from Jaylen, Our Student of the Year

Jun 27, 2017 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO and Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning
For this month’s article, I invite you to learn about Jaylen, a sixth-grade student from South Bronx Preparatory School. Earlier this month we honored Jaylen as the 2017 Student of the Year at PowerMyLearning’s Innovative Learning Awards.

During the ceremony, Jaylen presented his mother, Deshia, and math teacher, Ms. Arelys Arenas, with the awards for the Parent of the Year and Teacher of the Year. Jaylen explained how his mother and teacher teamed up to become effective learning partners and inspired him to work harder, bring his grades up, and develop ownership of his learning. In short, these two adults made the PowerMyLearning Triangle light up for Jaylen.

I’d like to share this four-minute video of Jaylen that shows how much he loves to learn and also how important his mom and his teacher are in fostering that love of learning.

PowerMyLearning: A Glimpse Into Our Work from PowerMyLearning on Vimeo.

I also invite you to read a few excerpts from Jaylen’s speech.

“I want to tell you how PowerMyLearning helped me, and how Ms. Arenas and my mom played a role in shaping where I am now. With their help, I was able to bring my grades up and, together, they encouraged me to work harder and be the best I could be.

PowerMyLearning Connect is an educational website where learning is fun. Sorry parents, but don’t be hatin’ because math was never fun for you when you were a kid! PowerMyLearning Connect has Family Playlists where the kid and parent participate in a series of fun games and can share with each other and teachers what they think about the playlist and about Connect.

My math teacher, Ms. Arenas, is one big reason why I am where I am now because she has pushed me to be my best since day one. I used to get upset because everyone else would be talking, but once I started talking she would tell me to be quiet. But then I learned that it’s because I don’t operate well while I’m talking and she didn’t want me to fail the class. I started making better decisions and my grades started coming up. Now I am working even harder so I can keep my grades up and conquer math. In math, I think of it like basketball–I keep shooting the same shot until it’s water and turns into my hotspot. I kept practicing, going to afterschool until my just-passing-grade, a D, turned into a B. Once I even had an A+ in math. Because of this, I want to give Ms. Arenas a special shout out for helping me find my success.

Now, let me tell you about my mom. My mom helped me with a lot of the challenges that I had in math and in school in general. She gives me good advice when I have to take quizzes or tests, and she teaches me the math I don’t understand in an easier way, so it’s almost like I’m being homeschooled. My mom motivates me to do better because when I get a good report card and good grades she rewards me with greens, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, lambs, rams, hogs, dogs, greens, beans, potatoes, chicken, turkey, rabbit–you name it! Just kidding. I love my mom and if she continues what she is doing, then I’ll be the president one day.

All I know is that with supportive teachers like Ms. Arenas, and my amazing mom, I will continue my success all the way until my last day on earth. I want to say thank you to PowerMyLearning, to Ms. Arenas, and to my mom for helping me unleash my potential.”

Jaylen’s story explains why the PowerMyLearning Triangle is the touchstone for everything we do. Together with his mother, Deshia, and his teacher, Ms. Arenas, Jaylen was able to take ownership of his learning and unleash his potential.

As we reflect on this past year, we thank you for supporting our efforts to help students in under-resourced communities, together with their teachers and families, harness the power of personalized learning to improve educational outcomes. We look forward to another year of helping students like Jaylen reach their full potential.

Data-driven instruction? These second graders say “Yes, Please!”

Data-driven instruction? These second graders say “Yes, Please!”

May 31, 2017 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO and Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning

Envision a classroom full of second-grade students who are at the tail end of a lesson. These students are really having fun. The reason why may shock you: they are completing a formative assessment about what they learned.

This is the picture in Ryan Feeney’s second grade classroom at PS 279, one of our partner schools located in Brooklyn… but it wasn’t always this way. For this month’s column, I am picking up the series about our Framework and focusing on the Data-Driven Instruction domain.

Many experts in the education sphere already know about the benefits teachers gain by using data to inform their instruction. My goal in this column is to focus on how Ryan used data-driven instruction not just to inform her instruction, but also to strengthen the learning relationships with her students, and to help them develop ownership of their own learning. It is by using data-driven instruction to accomplish these latter two goals that led her students to become such enthusiastic promoters of it.

Using Data to Inform Instruction

Let’s rewind to the beginning of this year, when Ryan encountered the challenge of having to personalize instruction for every second grader in her class. To do so, she needed to figure out an efficient way to identify and then meet the learning needs of all her students–an especially difficult task given that her students were at varying academic levels and many had learning differences.

Ryan worked with her PowerMyLearning coach, Lauren Burner-Lawrence, on the Data-Driven Instruction domain of our Framework for Teachers. To begin, Ryan shifted from using paper and pencil assessments exclusively, to also incorporating PowerMyLearning Connect Checkpoints as exit slips. Checkpoints are multiple-choice and open-response questions that typically come at the end of a Playlist to help students and teachers assess student mastery.

After her students completed a playlist, Ryan used her checkpoint data to differentiate her instructional materials and to re-teach concepts in new ways. She said, “A benefit of using Checkpoints was that it saved me time in being able to really see who got the gist of what we were doing and who needed a little more scaffolding or reinforcement.”

As the academic year progressed, Ryan began creating some of her own Checkpoint questions to add to her Playlists on PowerMyLearning Connect. Doing so encouraged Ryan to think deeper about the purpose of the questions as they related to the lesson.

She also used the data to set up student groupings for rotation stations. Stations allow students to rotate through different learning experiences such as a teacher-led station, a station for peer collaboration, and a station for independent practice.

“Everybody learns differently and everybody gets the concept in different ways. By assessing the data you can see who needs what and how to group your kids in a way that enables everyone to understand the information,” Ryan said.

Using Data to Develop Students Ownership

Ryan used data-driven instruction to push her students to develop ownership of their learning. She said Checkpoints encouraged her students to communicate what they knew and what they didn’t.

Small group instruction enabled students to develop a sense of independence that they may not necessarily have had with whole group instruction. The peer-collaboration work fostered a community where students helped each other troubleshoot and work through problems. All of these changes led to students advocating for themselves – pushing Ryan, themselves, and their peers when they still did not understand.

It is precisely because students started to feel like they had more control and agency of their learning that they began to love Checkpoints. Lauren, her coach, noted this as well, “Once the students understood that they could use Checkpoints to see if they ‘got it’ and their teacher could use Checkpoints to help them learn, they really enjoyed doing them.”

Using Data to Strengthen Student-Teacher Learning Relationships

It may sound odd to make the connection between relationships and assessments, but when formative assessment is used well, it can help teachers grow their connections with their students.

Ryan described this outcome well when she said, “My relationship with my students was strengthened as a result of getting to know their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you gravitate towards the lowest groups because they need the most reinforcement and it’s natural to work with them the most. By having these data-driven groups, I was able to really get to know each of my students and understand how they learn and their specific needs. It definitely strengthened my knowledge of my students, which has deepened my relationships with them and my understanding of how they learn best.”

Ryan’s Advice to Other Teachers

Ryan believes her experience with data-driven instruction can help other teachers experience the same success story that she did.

“My whole class is a success story. I could see such a growth from the fall until now,” Ryan reflected. “My advice to teachers who want to start using data-driven instruction is first of all, do not be intimidated. I think data-driven instruction is extremely important because it gives us a guideline. Yes, we have teacher guides and yes, we know which standard we’re going to be teaching our students, but by gathering data and driving your instruction according to the data, we can really get the nitty-gritty of what students truly need. Exposing students, even in the second grade, to assessments lets them know what they can expect and enables you to determine what your students need.”


It is a great privilege to hear from teachers like Ryan about how their practice has improved. Do you have an experience you can share that reflects the power of data-driven instruction? What advice would you provide teachers who want to get started? As always, I’d love to hear from you.

This article originally appeared in PowerMyLearning’s May 2017 Newsletter. Learn more about PowerMyLearning by visiting our website and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Edmodo.


Why We Need To Invest In Teachers

Why We Need To Invest In Teachers

May 1, 2017 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO and Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning

The Trump administration has proposed $2.4 billion in FY2018 cuts to one of the most important levers for improving the quality of education in the U.S.: professional development. The reason? “Funding is poorly targeted and supports practices that are not evidence-based.” (Politico)

Although professional development (PD) has often been portrayed as ineffective, there is increasing evidence that certain types of PD do result in improvements in teacher practice. At PowerMyLearning, PD is one of the key levers we use to help partner schools in high-poverty communities realize the power of the Personalized Learning Triangle (below). We provide teachers with the support they need to team up with families and meet the needs of all their students. The payoff can make a big difference in terms of student academic success.

I sat down with PowerMyLearning’s Director of Professional Learning Sue Lyons to discuss how our approach to PD deviates from the norm.

Elisabeth: What do you think about the statement that typical PD is ineffective?

Sue: The Trump administration is not the first to think PD is ineffective. I recently read that when Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education, asked teachers whether PD was improving their job, their response was either to laugh or cry. They were not “feeling it.” (U.S. News article)

In contrast, a study by McKinsey & Co. analyzing what the world’s best schools were doing right found that “developing teachers into effective instructors” was one of the top three things that mattered most. This study found that there were four approaches that high-performing school systems used to develop teachers, half of which were related directly to in-service teacher PD: (1) placing coaches in schools to support teachers; and (2) enabling teachers to learn from each other.

The reason I think most teachers in the U.S. are not feeling the benefits of PD is because the vast majority of PD is one-and-done workshops or classes. As a country, we need to move to the type of PD McKinsey describes in their study and this is what we’re doing at PowerMyLearning.

At PowerMyLearning, the PD we offer leverages coaching and professional learning communities (PLCs) where teachers can learn from each other. Our PD is job-embedded and happens in between collaborative coaching sessions. We also provide teachers with PD Playlists, which offer just-in-time, on-demand PD. Teachers can learn new concepts on their own time and work on applying them together with their coach. Finally, to enhance this culture of collaboration, we ask local coaches and teachers to participate in PLCs to enhance the learning knowledge and practices of coaches and teachers.

Elisabeth: At PowerMyLearning, 84% of coached teachers say our support was among the most valuable of their careers. Why do you think teachers are responding so positively?

Sue: At PowerMyLearning, we personalize PD and we approach it as a collaborative, collegial effort. We are there not to judge or to evaluate. We are there to support the teacher in accomplishing their own goals.

In the current climate, I think teachers are more afraid of being negatively evaluated than they are proud of what they’ve learned. What our coaching does is helps teachers discover where they can use support and it provides that safe place to grow and learn. At the end of the year, teachers feel proud of what they’ve accomplished as opposed to fearful of what they don’t know.

Elisabeth: Can you walk me through what PowerMyLearning’s PD looks like?

Sue: We start with a teacher self-assessment tool aligned with our instructional framework that allows teachers to reflect and report their current levels of understanding with personalized learning. Using that information as a starting point, coaches start working with the teacher to develop goals that strengthen where the teacher is already strong and offer support where the teacher could use some extra help. In many cases, teachers focus first on classroom environment, which you wrote about in your Stock Report last month. Then teachers will work with us on data-driven instruction, supporting student agency, and the family/home connection. The order of this work depends completely on the teacher and what she or he would like to pursue first.

Throughout all of this work, we offer a safe environment for teachers to collaborate, learn, and discover. We also instill agency in the teacher as a learner–just like teachers instill agency in their students.

By the end of the year, teachers retake that self-assessment and report deep comfort levels with personalized learning. In fact, 95% of teachers in our partner schools experience growth in practices that support personalized instruction and student-driven learning.

In some instances, teachers are hesitant to try personalized learning approaches. We often have to solidify a teacher’s understanding of what agency means, what personalized learning means, before the lightbulb goes on. Once teachers understand what we’re trying to do, they start to realize that this is the teaching they have always wanted to do and this is the learning they have always wanted to see–they just didn’t know how to do it.

Elisabeth: Thank you, Sue, for speaking with me today about effective PD. 

What do you think makes PD effective and worth investing in?

This article originally appeared in PowerMyLearning’s April 2017 Newsletter. Learn more about PowerMyLearning by visiting our website and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Edmodo.

How to Build a Strong Classroom Environment

How to Build a Strong Classroom Environment

Mar 31, 2017 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO and Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning

When Mr. Freeman, a fourth grade teacher at Du Bois Integrity, began his first year of teaching last year, he experienced two challenges that are common to first-year teachers. Both these challenges related directly to his interest in making his classroom environment more conducive to personalized learning: (1) He needed to determine how to make the physical space work better: “My classroom set-up encouraged me to talk too much and my instruction was not student-driven”; and (2) He needed to figure out how to create clear and consistent routines: “I was very frantic. I was running around the classroom, all over the place, almost as if I didn’t have any focus.”

I sat down with Mr. Freeman to learn about how PowerMyLearning helped him overcome these two challenges and transform his classroom environment to one that supported personalized learning. My interview with Mr. Freeman for this month’s column kicks off a multi-part series about PowerMyLearning’s Framework for Teachers starting with the domain: Classroom Environment.

A few weeks into his first year teaching English Language Arts and Social Studies, Mr. Freeman started working with Shonvietta “Shon” Murphy, a PowerMyLearning coach who used PowerMyLearning’s Framework for Teachers to guide their work together. Mr. Freeman explained that from the very beginning, the partnership empowered him to work “smarter not harder” and helped fuel the transition he was seeking from a teacher-centered classroom into a student-centered classroom.

Elisabeth: How did Shon help you change the structure of your classroom so that it would be more student-centered?

Mr. Freeman: If I go back in time to how my classroom was set up before Shon came in, it was really traditional. It was set up similar to how I was taught when I was younger. Everyone had an individual desk, all desks were facing the board, and it was teacher-centered–pretty much teachers lectured, students listened, students would have their independent time to themselves, and then the teacher would go over everything. It was a very monotone style of teaching, very teacher-centered.

Shon taught me how to create stations in my classroom. Instead of having all the desks facing forward with students’ eyes on me, I created small groups of desks around the room with desks facing each other. If I had three stations, one might be a teacher-led station, one might be a collaborative station with papers, books and manipulatives where students can do a hands-on experiment or game–the kids can socialize and work together to complete an activity; and one might be for independent practice and include computers. During each lesson, students rotated from station to station and at every station, the activity changes and provides students a different way to work together.

Elisabeth: I hear that many upper elementary teachers frown on stations because they worry that when their students are not at the teacher-led station, they will not focus on learning. Did you feel that way?

Mr. Freeman: At first, I was skeptical. The main thing you think about is are they able to do it by themselves? Even though it’s a fear, the main thing is that you have to build trust. So, I started small. Initially, I separated my class into two large groups because it was more manageable for me. Once I got the hang of it, my two groups became four, and my four groups became the six groups that I work with now. After a lot of experimenting, I am now happy with where I have landed: six groups comprised of four students each rotating around my classroom.

Elisabeth: Six groups of four students each means you are basically tutoring when each group comes to you at the teacher-led station! What kind of support did you receive from Shon in how to structure your stations?

Mr. Freeman: Shon provided support about how to assimilate students into stations and excite them. For example, she suggested assigning students leadership opportunities, which I did. The role of a leader, which changes from station to station, is to relay my instruction. Each station has a card with instructions that the leader explains. The leader also designates other students’ roles and explains them so that everyone understand their job. By the end of the activity, the leader makes sure all tasks are completed, work turned in, and that every student is ready to move on to the next station or activity.

Elisabeth: How do you assign leaders?

Mr. Freeman: The way I assign leaders is fluid and can highlight a student’s level of comprehension on the subject or even a student’s interest. For example, if I’m working on an art activity that incorporates literacy, I may have a student who is an artist lead that lesson. They may not necessarily be great at writing, but they’re great at art so it’s a way to engage that student and have them actively participate. Without leaders at each station, you may have one talkative student who controls the entire conversation or a quiet student who always sits back.

Elisabeth: If I walked in to your classroom, is there anything that would surprise me?

Mr. Freeman: I know a lot of teachers prefer their classes to be silent where you can hear a pin drop. In my classroom, it’s not quiet. I prefer to hear my students talking because it enables me to do informal observation. I can hear what’s working well for them and what they’re having issues with. Sometimes it’s too loud and I’ll have to reign them in, but it’s worth it. I don’t want silence – silence means you may have some students working, and others who do not know what they’re doing and are afraid they’ll get in trouble if they speak.

Elisabeth: Speaking of students working together, how do you assemble your groups of students to accommodate their different learning styles and abilities?

Mr. Freeman: Last year, I started by grouping students in homogenous groups based on their ability. I delivered the same content but at different rates according the group level. However, this year I tried something new by introducing heterogeneous groups, mixing students of varying ability, which has proven more effective for this particular class. One of the biggest benefits is that you can actually hear students scaffold each other during peer work, which helps bring everybody up. Many times, students can explain the material to a struggling peer much better than I can.

Elisabeth: How does your relationship with Shon work?

Mr. Freeman: One thing about Shon is she’ll give me advice, but she’s not going to tell me how to run my classroom – she leaves that to me. She taught me that only I can create the environment that is best for my students to learn. She might give me a clue: for example, she told me I was doing too much by going to every station to deliver instructions, so she told me to leave a card them for them, and I did. She also told me that I needed to give students leadership roles, and let me determine how to do this. You see, Shon understands that, as teachers, we all have our own creativity and personality, and we want our classrooms to reflect that.

Elisabeth: What advice do you have for other teachers who are interested in creating a classroom environment that is conducive to personalized learning?

Mr. Freeman: You have to build trust with your students. I’m candid with my students. I know there are certain things that they do not want to do. I’ll ask them “What will make you enjoy your time in class?” and they’ll say the chance to talk or the opportunity to try new things. Okay, fair enough. So, I’ll say if you want to do this and you want the classroom built this way, then what I need from you is for you to concentrate on what you’re doing and accomplish it. This took some time. At first, I didn’t let them know which activity I was going to grade, so it made them take their time and concentrate on doing their work. Now, they get to an activity and know the routine so that they know exactly what to do and how to get through it.

Elisabeth: How has working with PowerMyLearning and Shon been different than other professional development you have experienced? 

Mr. Freeman: Most PD opportunities simply provide tools or advice, but Shon and the PowerMyLearning team provided me with the framework and support that allowed me to grow as an educator, experiment, and generate my own solutions. Working with Shon was not a “one-and-done” experience. I was able to build upon my knowledge, and eventually my instruction became not only what Shon thought I should be doing, but what I want to be doing in my classroom.

Elisabeth: What are you most proud of in your work with Shon on classroom environment? 

Mr. Freeman: Breaking down my class into groups has enabled me to differentiate instruction, and put more responsibility in my students’ hands. Honestly, it really just makes everything easier for me. I have my lesson plan, so I know what I need to do; the students know their roles and classroom routines so they know what they need to do. It puts more responsibility in their hands, and they actually enjoy that and work harder for me.


Over the years, it has been a wonderful privilege to partner with teachers like Mr. Freeman to support them as they transformed their classroom environments from teacher-centered to student-centered. As I shared earlier, “classroom environment” is the first domain of our Framework, so please join me next month for a Q&A on one of our other domains. And please don’t hesitate to share your stories with me about building an effective classroom environment! As always, I would love to hear from you.

This article originally appeared in PowerMyLearning’s March 2017 Newsletter. Learn more about PowerMyLearning by visiting our website and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Edmodo

Introducing The Rigor Project

Introducing The Rigor Project

May 2, 2017 | The Stock Report

By Elisabeth Stock, CEO and Co-Founder, PowerMyLearning
According to the “Teachers Know Best” report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, teachers are excited about personalized learning, but they have expressed concern that digital content is not rigorous enough. In speaking with educators across the country, the need for rigorous content has been a recurring theme. Ami Gandhi, who has been teaching for more than a decade and is now the Director of Personalized Learning at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, told me, “The whole time I have been teaching rigor has been an issue. There is definitely a need to fill.”

To begin to address this concern around rigor, PowerMyLearning recently received $4.5 million from the Gates Foundation, $3 million of which will support the creation of more rigorous personalized content that will start releasing in late 2018.

For this month’s column, I spoke with PowerMyLearning’s content management team, Paul Thomas, Senior Director of Instruction, and Caryn Rogoff, Director of Content, who are spearheading our Gates-funded work around developing rigorous personalized content as part of what we call The Rigor Project.

Elisabeth: What does the word “rigor” mean?

Paul: Most people think rigor is about giving students longer problems, or harder numbers, or 8th grade work when they are in the 6th grade. But this is not rigor. Rigor is about the cognitive complexity of the tasks students are completing. There are already several very effective frameworks that exist to describe rigor (e.g., Norman Webb’s the Depth of Knowledge levels) and we will be building on those.

Elisabeth: So is the problem that there is not rigorous content out there or is the problem that there is not rigorous personalized content out there?

Caryn: There is already excellent rigorous content out there being used by teachers across the country, but much of it is print-based – even if teachers access it from a website – and therefore not easily customizable. So building in personalization is a real challenge. The Rigor Project is all about using the power of easily customizable and interactive digital content to facilitate personalization and scaffolding of rigorous content in an engaging way that also builds in an element of student agency.

Elisabeth: How will The Rigor Project meet teachers’ needs for content that is both rigorous and personalized or granular at the same time?

Caryn: We will meet this need by creating Rigorous Playlists. Math Playlists (which we have been funded to build) will be comprised of digital learning activities curated from the web, assessment questions, and other content that helps teachers and students see the coherence of it all. We have not yet been funded to build English Language Arts (ELA) Playlists, but expect these to include complex texts, supplementary materials that build background knowledge, and high-quality sequencing of questions to get at that higher level of rigorous thinking. When used in our platform, teachers will be able to modify the Playlists by drawing on a bank of digital learning activities and assessment questions tagged to levels of rigor. Teachers will also be able to add in their own content (such as their own videos).

Elisabeth: What if educators want to use these Playlists in a different platform?

Paul: Our goal is to create a Playlists Player so districts and CMOs can also embed our Rigorous Playlists in a different platform if that’s what they prefer.

Elisabeth: How does rigor vary across the different content areas?

Paul: In math we often talk about rigor using a tri-fold filter: conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application. It’s not just about always doing things with applications or always doing things with conceptual understanding, but balancing all three along with cognitive complexity.

Caryn: In ELA, rigor is about students tackling complex texts. Research shows that the key determinant of how well kids do on literacy tests and how well they do in college really depends on working through grade-level complex texts. In the past, when educators felt they had students who were not ready for complex texts, educators offered these students “simplified” texts; but if we do that, we’re doing kids a real disservice. In fact, helping kids to work through those harder, more rigorous materials is what really elevates their skill. The trick here is giving teachers the tools they need to help their students access complex texts, such as providing students with the necessary scaffolding and background knowledge.

Elisabeth: So instead of lowering the bar, we enable teachers to help their students jump over the bar?

Caryn: Exactly. And this is really an equity issue because we’re often not getting kids the rigorous content that enables them to be reading at a level that they need to succeed and pushes them to take rigorous courses.

Paul: To add to what Caryn is saying, there is research that indicates the rigor of a student’s high school course selections strongly correlates to successful college completion rates – a much different metric than high school graduation or college admission rates. This is about the positive relationship between rigor and college graduation. The Rigor Project is a step in the direction of getting students towards those rigorous course selections – getting them to want to take difficult courses, which will ultimately pay off down the road.

Elisabeth: We’re talking about rigor and developing this rigorous material – but what do teachers need to put in place so that students are willing to exert themselves to try to jump over that bar?

Paul: Readiness is key. If you give me a really high bar to jump over, and I’m not prepared – I’m probably not going to make it over, and I’m going to be stressed about it. On the other hand, if I’m prepared and I work through a series of exercises to gain the required strength and expertise, I’m still going to feel challenged, but I’ll be more confident and optimistic in my ability to make it over. Providing scaffolding and the opportunity to delve into the readiness is really about personalization. We’re able to show the teacher where a student’s particular skill set fits into this sequence and what came before so they know what the prerequisite skills are, and they know what to provide students so that they have a winning shot at getting through this content. As a result, teachers can see that coherence, see those progressions, and see the foundational knowledge that’s required.

Elisabeth: I’m wondering if there’s also a third dimension that relates to relationships. What’s the role of adults in students’ lives in encouraging students to try and stick with things they might not feel they are good at? How do we get kids to stretch themselves?

Paul: This is the strength of the PowerMyLearning approach. We’re not trying to engineer the teacher or the parent out of the process. We’re supporting teachers as they work with students and invite students’ families into the learning process. That relationship with the student is about trust, responsiveness, personalization and customization – those are all critical and in our DNA as an organization. We’re not trying to work around teachers or parents; we’re working to support strong relationships.

Elisabeth: Thank you, Paul and Caryn for speaking with me today about this exciting project.

Readers, as always, we would love to hear from you. We invite you to share your challenges and successes with combining rigorous instruction and personalized learning.

This article originally appeared in PowerMyLearning’s February 2017 Newsletter. Learn more about PowerMyLearning by visiting our website and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Edmodo.