Professional Development Needs an Overhaul

Zulama  Teams with Educurious at SXSWedu conference

Bev Vaillancourt, Editorial Director

FullSizeRender 3As I boarded my flight to Austin, Texas, to attend the SXSWedu conference, I mulled over just what I might be hearing and seeing, but mostly I wondered whether the presentation Jane Chadsey from Educurious and I had planned for the conference would be all that we hoped it could be.

Several months ago Zulama, Educurious, and Working Examples submitted a joint application to SXSWedu to share our thoughts on what makes for a truly dynamic professional development experience. Titled Professional Development Needs an Overhaul, the presentation brought together what we believe to be best practices in designing fully engaging professional development. We were committed to bring to Austin our shared passion for education and our shared belief in the importance of teachers as collaborative decision makers in the professional development process.

To our delight, our session room filled to capacity and then some. For two short hours educators collaborated on discussing adult learning and its relationship to design thinking.

  • Who are the stakeholders in professional development?
  • Is it limited to teachers, or does it also include administrators, school board members, and students?
  • What are the outcomes for each and are they the same?
  • Is there opportunity to fail and fail fast, and then iterate within a dynamic culture of support, synergy, and creativity?
  • What role does relevance play for each stakeholder and how is that determined?

We discussed motivators and performance based on small steps that includes time for reflection. Importantly, we discussed an overarching respect of the process, which means dedicated time for individuals to work in teams within schools, a district, and across districts to problem solve. We stressed that professional development must be an experience that includes “flow.” And, as we ended, we reminded everyone “don’t forget the fun.” Professional development, as all learning, really needs to be fun to succeed.

With our Problem Solving workshop finished, Jane and I were off to enjoy the rest of the conference. Student agency and student-led learning perhaps were the overriding themes of SXSWedu. From the session on Acton Academy where teachers are termed “guides” to several sessions on personalized learning, trust in student curiosity and ingenuity permeated the many sessions held in three different conference venues over four days. And, not surprisingly, project based learning was often heard as the vehicle for moving students beyond core content to meaningful and engaged experiences.

Project based learning forms the core of Zulama’s courses. But, exactly what is PBL and how can its design maximize content knowledge and engagement? Many consider the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) foremost in PBL training. What a bonus to have BIE presenting at SXSWedu! So, off I went on Tuesday morning to fine tune my PBL skills. The core question BIE posed was “How can we evaluate good project based learning? Importantly, determining the outcomes and figuring out how project based learning can be authentically assessed drives the process. What is it students want to learn? How will they know they’ve succeeded in accomplishing what they’ve determined as outcomes? What will get them there?

FullSizeRender 20BIE stresses that project based learning must be the “main course, and not the dessert,” of classroom strategy. Curious about just how powerful PBL can be for kids? Take a look at Media Saves the Beach, a student-led science project that crossed all subject areas and drew on the individual talents and skillsets of each group of students. No well-crafted lesson plan could have taken this project to what it became as students totally immersed themselves in finding answers to problems that directly impacted their community. Guided by a teacher who trusted the inherent curiosity and learning capacity of his students, mutual respect for skills and knowledge yielded sophisticated project data overlaid with significant community relevance and scientific importance. Perhaps Scott Nguyen a high school student presenter said it best the last day of the conference, “Students are very capable, far more capable than you think.”

Maker Spaces ruled at SXSWedu this year. Computer coding certainly has found an important place in maker spaces. Take a look at this KIBO / beebot project that combines computer coding with robotics. Primary age kids code what they would like the robot to do by sequencing and scanning bar codes on a series of blocks. Touch a button on the robot and off it goes on its programmed path. Young kids are building entire KIBO/beebot villages out of cardboard and props, and then sending their robots on their merry way to navigate around the village. I can tell you that adults at SXSWedu were having a grand time stringing coding blocks!

The primary outcome of education should be to put more ownership in learners’ hands so that students can navigate everything they will encounter in their lives. – Stacey Childress of the NewSchools Venture Fund

This statement underscores Zulama’s philosophy of student-centered classrooms and student directed learning. If there was one main take-way for me from the SXSWedu conference, it’s that educators can play a pivotal role in expanding collective, creative experiences that powers learning on student terms driven by student interests. Authenticity – real tools, real meaning, real processes that significantly impact students outside of the schoolhouse walls – is what 21st Century learning must be all about. “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience,” wrote John Dewey many years ago. Then, as today, his words give deep meaning to that very personal experience called education.

Beyond all of the sessions I attended, and beyond all of the energized conversations I had the honor of sharing with exceptional educators, the most profound moments for me at the conference came from a SXSWedu showing of a movie called Conducta, translated as Behavior, set in a poverty-laden village in Cuba. It is a deeply moving story of a teacher who places her students in front of the system and cares more about who they are and what they can become than what the system says they should be. The movie dramatically reminds us of how deeply young people feel righteousness, and how quickly they understand injustice. But mostly, it reminds us of how one teacher can help any child find vision and hope. This belief fueled the energy of the SXSWedu conference, and made it well worth attending.


Five Ways to Infuse Career Preparation into Lessons

With all the paperwork, parent conferences, grading, and standardized test preparation, it seems there’s little time for much else, nevermind also having students research future job markets and careers. So, how can we incorporate career preparation into our lessons while still focusing on class content?

  1. Build 21st Century Skills:

    While this doesn’t directly relate to career research, we all know that students will be well off having mastered these skills. Employers and colleges are looking for students who can collaborate on projects, communicate across multiple platforms, create and innovate, as well as think critically.

  2. Utilize IDEA Teams:

    IDEA Teams are a great way to reinforce iteration within group projects. Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. When these steps become second nature to students, we know they are well prepared to tackle the future.

  3. Reinforce Collaboration:

    One of the most important 21st Century Skills, collaboration is the key to student success in a future career. It seems that teamwork and collaboration are one in the same, but there is actually a subtle difference between the two. Collaboration has more to do with creative thinking, positively interacting, and sharing insights while teamwork is about sharing responsibility, helping others achieve, and protecting and supporting team goals. Students need to collaborate while working in teams, future careers, communities, and even across broad networks, like social media.

  4. Employ Project-Based Learning:

    Project-Based Learning provides authentic learning experiences similar to those in future careers. Allow your students to explore their strengths and promote the talents of others within their IDEA Teams. This is a great way for students to self-evaluate and discover skills that were previously hidden. Self-reflection will help students gain a clear idea of careers they may enjoy based on their personal strengths.

  5. Focus on STEAM:

    We know that more than ever, we are not isolated. We are involved in a global economy and students will likely compete for jobs in a global environment. In order to give our students a leg up we can’t teach subjects in isolation. With a focus on STEAM, we connect science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, all subjects needed to develop well-rounded 21st century citizens. By showing students how to see connections between different content areas, they will be able to make the same connections in college and beyond.

With these five tips in your back pocket, your students will be well on the path to a bright future!



We all want to give our students the best chance at an enjoyable fulfilling career, and at Zulama, that’s what we’re doing!  Through our Entertainment Technology Academy, we are infusing our students with the 21st century skills they need to compete in today’s workforce.  That’s why our program is built on the qualities of STEAM, rather than STEM. Science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics play a critical role in all our courses. They work together to teach our students collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking skills.  Take a look at the infographic below developed by The University of Florida comparing STEM and STEAM.



Day in a Classroom: Making

west a game mod 2

Day in a Classroom: Making

Sarah Avery, Community Advocate, Educator

Back in January, with the semester drawing to a close, students were hard at work studying for finals, writing term papers, and finishing presentation projects.  Never had I seen students more excited to be doing these things than in Chris Lucas’s classroom at West Allegheny High School.  Mr. Lucas, a Zulama teacher, teaches Evolution of Games and Mobile Game Design to students from 9th to 12th grade.  When I first entered the the classroom, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  As a substitute, I’m used to students being standoff-ish around new people. I wasn’t expecting students to welcome me into their space and be so excited that I experience the games they were building.

In my visit, students were playtesting traditional games (like Chess and Nine Man Morris) they had modified.  Suddenly, pieces could move any number of spaces and a roll of the dice could determine just how lucky you really are. Everywhere I looked, students were collaborating, building, analyzing, and having fun.

An interesting game modification I found was in the game of Chess. The students decided that if a piece takes another piece, rather than just removing it from the board, you flip it over and that square becomes a blank space that no one can land on, so while you play, the board becomes more and more limited, raising the level of difficulty and strategy involved.  Another modification that caused much excitement took place in Nine Man Morris.  The students added a bit of chance to the game by offering the option to roll the dice in addition to traditional moves. However, whatever number you rolled, you must abide by the moves listed in the directions. For example, if you rolled a three, your opponent may take one of your pieces, but if you rolled a five, you revived one of your taken pieces. So, the students had to weigh the risks in addition to thinking strategically about their moves. This led to many loud outbursts of laughter as the hand of fate moved against the players.

west a game mod 1

In the later class of Mobile Game Design, the students were much less animated because they were focused on finishing their term individual game design projects.  However, I did get to speak with them about their games.  Many of them were working on debugging their programs. One student had trouble losing lives once his character died.  Eventually, after discussing the issues with Mr. Lucas, the student decided to delete the character and rewrite the code. Though frustrated by his writing error, he admitted that he learned to be more observant and aware when programming. He noted that through his Zulama classes he has learned the skills perseverance, iteration, and resilience in order to solve issues. He has since then begun working with GameMaker, a more challenging game programming system.

Throughout my two hour visit I saw many things, but what everything boils down to is the essence of the Maker Movement. defines the Maker Movement as “a trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.” While this is very long winded and technical, I prefer to define the Maker Movement as the spirit of collaboration on a project to create something that will solve a problem. Simply put, a maker is someone who makes.

From homes to community centers to schools to corporate America, the Maker Movement has grown in popularity.  At Zulama, we support the Maker Movement through our curriculum’s emphasis on project-based learning. Our teachers are riding that wave of technological creativity and ingenuity in the classroom with our students. Exploration and discovery are the best methods of education. Through game design and project based learning, we can utilize students’ natural curiosity to enhance their educational experiences by having them teach themselves, like the student who had to rewrite his code in order to fix his problem. In the past, teachers held the keys to knowledge, but through the Maker Movement and project based learning, everyone holds the keys and collaborates to learn.  Students are actively and creatively engaged in learning through dynamic and authentic experiences in order to investigate, collaborate, and innovate. Learning and creating memories is an active process and teachers who embrace the Maker Movement take full advantage of that by creating interactive projects and games designed to spark interest, enhance understanding, and create a sense of ownership for students’ education.


The Maker Movement and Education

The Maker Movement and Education

Sarah Avery, Community Advocate, Educator

Sarah AveryWe all remember the iconic scene in The Sandlot where the boys try desperately to retrieve their lost ball. First, they start with a primitive pole, graduating to a pole with a pot on the end; but, their ingenuity does not end there. They end up breaking out the big guns when Smalls gathers every piece of his erector set to build an advance ball-retrieving machine.  Needless to say, despite their scientific approaches, they fail, but in their failure they find new and improved ways to attain their goal: retrieving the lost Babe Ruth ball.

This scene shows the true spirit of the Maker Movement: people collaborating on a project to create something that will solve a problem. A maker, boiled down to the barest of terms, is someone who makes, just as a gardener is someone who gardens and a writer is someone who writes.  If you create, invent, build, or engineer, you are a maker.

We need our students to be makers. A healthy economy is built on entrepreneurs, inventors, and start ups, and in recent years we have seen a resurgence of makers. Kickstarters, Esty, Pinterest are just a few websites that allow people to show off their creations. Pinterest, in particular, is famous for its expansive database of DIY projects. Though Pinterest is generally an adult social media outlet, our greatest makers are often students.  People under the age of 18 have less responsibilities and more curiosity, leading to free time devoted to inventing and discovering. One example of a young maker is Joey Huddy, 16 year old electrical engineering prodigy.  At the age of 12, he wowed President Obama with his marshmallow gun at the National Science fair.  Currently, he is finishing high school, applying for colleges, all while being the youngest Intel employee ever.  That is quite an accomplishment for the young man whose personal mantra is “Don’t be bored, make something.”  Thanks to Joey and millions of other makers in the US, in February 2014, the White House announced the first White House Maker Faire in the article, “Announcing the First White House Maker Faire” by Tom Kalil and Jason Miller.  On June 18th 2014, the White House held the Makers Faire designed to celebrate the return of ingenuity and creativity in the US. You

With the expansion of technology, the Maker Movement has taken off, like the industrial revolution of technology.  We need to ride that wave in our classrooms.  Exploration and discovery are the best methods of education. Through game design and project based learning, we can utilize students’ natural curiosity to enhance their educational experiences by essentially having them teach themselves while teachers facilitate.  In the past, teachers held the keys to knowledge, but through the Maker Movement and project based learning, everyone holds the keys and collaborates to learn.  Students are no longer sponges, passively soaking up information.  Learning and creating memories is an active process and we can take advantage of that by creating interactive projects and games designed to spark interest, enhance understanding, and create a sense of ownership for students’ education.

My most vivid memories from high school and middle school were when I was creating, researching, building, designing, and collaborating.  It instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment in my education.  That’s what we want to give to our students: a community built on educational pride and ownership.

In The Sandlot, the boys create a bond that lasts a lifetime. Through the challenges they face, their resourcefulness shines, giving the audience a clear image of what it means to be a maker: someone a part of a community that works together toward a common goal through discovery, inventiveness, and perseverance.