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TeachFest
Why I’m excited about the arrival of back-to-school season
Young students may not agree, but I am excited with the arrival of back-to-school season. This is a particularly interesting year, especially now with all the innovation underway in education.
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I’ve always enjoyed summer, but every August as a kid I looked forward to new teachers, new classes and new things to learn, and now as a parent I look forward to my kids getting back to the classroom and coming home and discussing what they’re learning.

Parents know how much preparation it takes to get kids ready for school in the fall. For teachers it’s quite a load too, with all the prep they have to do and the challenges of managing new classes. There are some very interesting new tools and resources I’m excited about that are focused on lightening that load by supporting teachers and great teaching.

One very interesting effort is TeachFest, sponsored by LearnZillion. This past summer, TeachFest brought together more than 120 teachers in Atlanta for the “ultimate study hall.” Working together, they created videotaped lessons in math, English, social studies and other subjects – all tied to the Common Core standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Teachers can watch these free videos to get ideas for their own classes, use them with their students, or just study the presentation techniques to learn from these master-teachers who participated in the project.

The first of 2,000 lessons are going online this fall. It’s great that TeachFest and LearnZillion are providing these resources for free to teachers, especially as they adapt to the new Common Core standards.

Another group of teachers took on a slightly different challenge—classroom technology. This topic is a personal interest of mine that I touched on recently when I spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools. We are still at the beginning of understanding how to best use technology in the classroom. It can be overwhelming with the explosion of tools, technologies and services available to teachers and schools. Part of the challenge is to understand how teachers think technology can effectively support their work with students.

To help find out, 790 educators in five states participated in focus groups and working sessions over the past several months under the auspices of the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), an organization our foundation supports. The SLC talked with these educators about the way they work today and the challenges they face in the classroom. Those conversations helped identify the most promising areas for development of technology resources that could really make a difference. The SLC has made this information available to entrepreneurs, developers and publishers so that they can focus their energy on creating tools and applications that more effectively meet the needs expressed by these great teachers.

I’m often asked how individuals interested in supporting teachers and education can get involved and provide support. One particular service I like a lot is DonorsChoose.org, which makes it easy for anyone to help support teachers and students in need. In all types of schools these days, teachers often have to use their own money to get the things they need for their classrooms. They may have to buy even basic school supplies. More expensive stuff, like equipment for a chemistry lab, may simply be unaffordable, particularly for schools where parents and fund-raising drives just can’t close the gap. Students go without and their learning may suffer.

DonorsChoose.org provides a simple way for you to find teachers and donate to help with specific needs in their classrooms. You can support teachers in your own community or anywhere else in the country. You can choose projects you find interesting in particular subjects, from math and science to the humanities. When you browse some of the projects at DonorsChoose.org, I think you’ll be as impressed as I am by the creativity and resourcefulness of America’s teachers—and by the neat way the site uses the Web to bring people together for good.  

So, this back-to-school season is especially exciting for me and everyone else involved in working to strengthen education. I hope everyone takes time to support these efforts in some way.

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