Making Learning Joyfully Rigorous for Students

by Center for Inspired Teaching
Our classrooms foster kids
Our classrooms foster kids' problem solving skills

Each day, Inspired Teaching expands its reach. We just opened the application for the eighth cohort of Inspired Teaching Fellows, whom we prepare for successful and sustainable careers as inquiry-based teachers in DC. Also this month, we trained over a hundred teachers, instructional coaches, and district leaders from a dozen districts across Maryland in inquiry-based techniques – with a special focus on infusing inquiry into the study of environmental literacy. We presented at the National Conference for the Social Studies, holding up our Real World Historyprogram as a model for an inquiry-based, applied history course. Next week, I’ll take our message to Istanbul, where I will train teachers in all of Turkey’s Ashoka Changemaker Schools and, at the international Changemaker Education Summit, offer education leaders the tools to shift the norm towards inquiry-based education.

I’m proud that we’re spreading Inspired Teaching to broader and more varied audiences. This is part of the critical work of changing expectations about what students should experience in school. Every child should have the opportunity to learn by engaging with compelling questions, testing out responses, and pursuing deeper understanding. Every child should have a teacher who builds students’ Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. For a better future, we need the kind of rigorous, engaging, inquiry-based instruction that will cultivate the next generation of tinkerers and inventors, critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers, and changemakers.

The challenge with changing expectations is that people must grapple with something that looks entirely different from their own experience. When one of our interns visited the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School for the first time, she was surprised by the contrast to her own time in elementary school. Instead of rows of silent, still students listening passively to a teacher’s lesson, she saw students moving freely yet with purpose, supporting their peers’ learning and growth, and exploring a variety of routes to truly understanding a complex topic. We must first recognize excellent inquiry-based instruction when we see it. Then we can support it: in our children’s classrooms, our schools, our school districts, our countries.

So what can you do? Use the Inspired Teaching “bingo card” to help identify a classroom environment that builds The 4 I’s. Share it with friends who are parents so they’ll know what to look for when visiting their children’s schools. Share it with your friends who are teachers so they can keep it in mind as they teach. If you are a parent, send your child’s teacher a thank you note when you see evidence of inquiry-based intruction – and send your child’s principal a note in support of that teacher. If you are an administrator or district leader, bring Inspired Teaching’s transformative teacher training to your schools. If you are an Inspired Teacher, continue to support your colleagues and spread the word.

Thank you for your support of Inspired Teachers everywhere. Together, we are changing the norm.


Students reflect on the Great Migration paintings
Students reflect on the Great Migration paintings

Center for Inspired Teaching recently launched Real World History, a year-long history course for public school students in Washington, DC that teaches students history by "doing history" through community-based oral history projects and through internships at national museums. This year the Real World History course is centered around the study of the Great Migration, the period in U.S. history when millions of African-Americans migrated from the rural, agricultural South to urban metro areas in the MidWest, MidAtlantic and West.

On August 20th, Real World History students kicked off the 2015-16 school year with a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see One-Way Ticket, an exhibit featuring Jacob Lawrence’s complete Migration Series.

Lawrence’s series of paintings depicting the Great Migration, the 20th century mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North, has not been housed in one location for 20 years. The paintings are accompanied by poems, sketches, letters, and photographs from the period that provide even deeper insights into the lives of those who made the difficult decision to leave their homes.

Real World History students spent the afternoon viewing and discussing these paintings as they selected ones that appealed to them to discuss later in the classroom. Accompanying the students were several members of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Washington, DC; these Washingtonians have family members who moved during the Great Migration, and they will be interviewed by the students for oral history projects featuring local DC citizens with personal connections to the Great Migration.

By design, Real World History takes a step outside the traditional history classroom, bringing history alive for students from high schools across DC as they learn and practice the mindsets and skills of historians. In addition to their own oral history projects, in the first semester, the class will dive into The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, an award-winning account of the Great Migration, which features interviews with more than 1,200 individuals. In the second semester, students will intern at a number of the District’s museums and historical sites, having the opportunity for real world application of their skills and to explore professions in the field.The visit to MoMA brought to light multiple dimensions of a little-known migration that had a deep impact on the United States. 

An Inspired Fellow Says Podcasts Are Helpful Tool
An Inspired Fellow Says Podcasts Are Helpful Tool

All year, Inspired Teaching Fellows have engaged their classroom students as partners in a classroom investigation. Working together, teachers and students have worked to answer such questions as:

"What happens to our writing skills when we accompany writing time with music?"

"Do we learn more when we create a podcast about the topic we are studying?"

"Does meditating a little bit every day help increase our focus?"

After a year of delving into these questions with their students, the Inspired Teaching Fellows shared their findings at a public forum. Through interactive presentations, Fellows shared conclusions and unanswered questions; and the possible next steps for expanding their classroom research projects. Their work highlighted the role of teachers as changemakers in classrooms, schools, and society.

The themes of our Fellows inquiry-based projects are as follows:

A Novel Idea: Book Clubs in the Elementary Classroom

Transitions in the Early Childhood Classroom

 Mindfulness-Based Interventionsin the Classroom

Questioning as a Strategy to Promote Deeper Learning

The Effect of Student Autonomy on Writing Development

Students as Content Creators

Brain Breaks and Behavior

The Power of Effective Transitions

Classroom Transitions: How Teacher Expectations Impact Classroom Efficiency

Using Art to Increase Student Engagement in Math Centers

The Language of Reengagement

The Music Effect

Overall, it was an exciting evening for educators looking to learn from each other's classroom practices and investigations.


Imagination is key to problem solving
Imagination is key to problem solving

This piece was written by Aleta Margolis, Center for Inspired Teaching’s Founder and Executive Director.

Too often, people hear “imagination” and think “nice, but not necessary.” Imagination is commonly perceived as a soft skill (children drawing purple unicorns) or as an innate character trait that can’t be taught. Many people share a similar misconception about play, viewing it as a nice bonus in school and not as a necessary, powerful instructional tool.

At Center for Inspired Teaching, we believe imagination and serious play are both absolutely necessary for students to thrive. Vibrant imaginations – strengthened through playful, engaging lessons – improve students’ problem solving and critical thinking abilities while enabling students to approach unexpected challenges creatively. Inspired Teaching incorporates serious play into all of our teacher trainings. We recently hosted a film crew from the LEGO Foundation who recorded the way we teach teachers to incorporate imagination and play to help students learn content and master standards.

The LEGO film crew visited the first grade classroom of Maryam Amer, a 2014 Inspired Teaching Fellow now in her residency year at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School. Ms. Amer led a science lesson on habitats and conservation and asked her students to use their understanding of these topics to design and build original mechanisms to protect penguins from pollution. The students had already learned a lot about the effects of pollution on penguins: how oil separates from water and as a result covers large surface areas after a spill; how tides carry human garbage from the shores deep into the ocean; how oil causes penguins’ feathers to stick together, allowing freezing cold water to penetrate to the inner layers of their coats. Ms. Amer challenged her first graders to use their imaginations to build upon what they’d learned and envision solutions. Here’s what they came up with:

One group of students designed and built an airplane with extendable arms that could suck up oil and garbage from the ocean’s surface. Another group built a rehabilitation home for penguins damaged by oil, with a shower to scrub off the oil and a hot tub for the penguins to reset their bodies to a healthy body temperature. Another produced miniature sweaters to keep the penguins warm and to prevent them from attempting to peck the oil off of their bodies. One of the students was so excited by the solutions he and his classmates generated that he told the visiting filmmakers he hopes to become a scientist one day. If he does, he’ll be using his imagination in his chosen field to develop new ways to solve entrenched challenges.

To observe the way teachers learn to create lessons that are both rigorous and play-filled, we took the LEGO film crew to an Inspired Teaching seminar I led for the 2014 Inspired Teaching Fellows. These new teachers brainstormed obstacles that get in the way of bringing serious play to classrooms. Teachers named challenges such as inadequate training or resources, lack of support from leadership, and the pervasive belief that learning is a sedentary activity.

To consider these challenges from a different perspective, I asked teachers form groups with half of each group creating representations of the obstacles with their bodies. The other half faced the task devising a strategy to overcome, literally, each obstacle by creating ways to get around, over, above, or through it. Engaging participants’ bodies, minds, and imaginations, this activity sparked an intense debate among the teachers about what it means to be a changemaker and what they can do to re-imagine learning in their schools and communities, as well as their classrooms.

Shifting the norm so that imagination and play are thoughtfully incorporated in schools is challenging and joyful work. It requires serious persistence and the willingness to support teachers and students as they take risks and disrupt the norm. It requires asking teachers to engage in extremely detailed and well researched planning so that they can nimbly adapt to the variety of places their students’ imaginations may take them. It requires showing results – proving that students do learn through play, and that, in fact, they learn more deeply by being fully engaged.

Changing expectations for what great teaching and learning looks like requires the imagination to see what’s possible when students’ 4 I’s –Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity – are equally valued.

Kindergarteners Research Finches and Sparrows
Kindergarteners Research Finches and Sparrows

My name is Jessica Hiltabidel and I work as a Manager of Teaching and Learning at Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, DC. I help select, train, and support exceptional new teachers for successful and sustainable careers in the local public and public charter schools. I also visit the teachers who have graduated from our Inspired Teaching programs and who are infusing public school classrooms with rich, engaging and rigorous lessons, centered around real world study topics. The following is a snapshot of a recent teacher I visited who exemplifies the Inspired Teaching approach:

Many see the role of a teacher as an all-knowing information provider whose students are empty vessels that need filling. At Inspired Teaching, however, we believe that the role of the teacher is to instigate thought and to facilitate the students’ ability to ask their own questions, seek their own answers, and become the experts themselves.

Recently, I was able to see a wonderful example of “Student as Expert” in the classroom of one of our 2013 Inspired Teaching Fellows. Ms. Richardson is a kindergarten teacher at a local elementary school and is working with her students to complete an expedition, or a project-based instructional unit, on birds.

I joined the class as morning meeting ended and was surprised by the strategy Ms. Richardson used to transition to the next lesson. Instead of calling student names, groups, or using traditional music, she played a clip of birds tweeting. Immediately, hands shot into the air as students were able to identify the unique sounds of the bird their group was studying. Here were five- and six-year-olds exuberantly recognizing and explaining how the robin has a short high-pitched “meep” while the sparrow has a more buzzy sound.

From there, students broke up into groups to practice their observation skills by making a more detailed second draft drawing of their assigned bird. I sat with the Starling Group who told me all about the different colors a starling can have. They showed me how the feathers had hints of green and purple. We talked about their blue eggs, yellow beaks, and long legs. The highlight was when the students showed me the birds they had in the room as class pets!

If you ask Ms. Richardson, she’ll tell you she’s not an avid birder; however, through the study of birds, she has been able to foster her kindergarten students’ interest and enhance their abilities to compare and contrast, use descriptive and advanced language, categorize, and research.

I’m proud to celebrate the classrooms of Inspired Teaching Fellows like Ms. Richardson, and I am proud to celebrate Inspired Teaching's role in building "nest of learning" for students throughout our local public school system.


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Organization Information

Center for Inspired Teaching

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Aleta Margolis
Executive Director
Washington, DC United States
$11,520 raised of $75,000 goal
157 donations
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