Literacy with Lafferty

Integrated Life and Literacy

Billy Bob’s gettin’ us ready for school, mmm-hmm.




July is nearly over. We’ve had our down-time and now we’re warming up again! But Twitter, Edutopia, Pinterest never took a break!  I love them, but there are so many ideas of perfect classroom design, ways to engage, technology to infuse, flipping, gamification . . . Your head is soon spinnin’. But you keep seeking (amid pinning 20 Delicious Recipes Using Crescent Rolls) because you don’t want to miss that one perfect idea that just fits your vision of the coming school year. There’s just so much and probably too much. 

And we haven’t even mentioned the books.  Oh my.  Solomon – the wisest man who ever lived – wrote in Ecclesiastes: There is no end to the crafting of many books, and too much study wearies the body.  I love that 1,000s of years ago that was as true as today.

Why do we spend our brief summer googling and pinteresting?  It’s all about creating a space that builds relationships with our students, using our content to prepare them for life, and allowing them to see their unique place in the future of their world.

What does Billy Bob have to do with this?

On Oprah’s “Master Class” he reminisced  about his life as six year old in an Arkansas home with no water or electricity. It was a difficult existence. One teacher in a high school theater class changed the direction of his life. He took the class just so he could meet girls and possibly make a rare passing grade, but he left it with a unique experience that led to a life’s ambition. As I was listening to him describe that one woman that changed his direction –  one who taught 45 years ago before all our swirling expectations and resources – I saw her simple, practical application of just plain good teaching that’s the destination of all  that’s inundating us.

I took a 2 minute video of this part of the show – sorry it’s not better quality. Notice what she so simply and naturally did.

  • First – he is a totally dis-engaged student.  He was a trouble-maker and couldn’t care less about her class.
  • She did not try to force him to bend to her will with discipline referrals or put-downs about his lack of responsibility. She didn’t expect him fit into her class – she got to know his interests and figured out a way to make her  class fit HIM!
  • She gave him an authentic project that integrated his interest with her content.
  • And then gave him the gift of hope and direction for his future.
  • He recognizes that class as his life-shift 45 years later – above Academy Awards, Angelina, and all the accolades that are part of being Billy Bob.

Look at all those boards you’ve made, the books you’ve read – or planned to read – all the ideas you’ve shared on Facebook.They all fit that simple plan of getting to know your students and showing them who they are through what they learn and experience in your class. Challenge with heart. Responsibility with a goal.

No matter what we teach – that’s a good teacher right there – I don’t care who are. 🙂

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. . . but they want a faster horse!


Today’s beautiful snow day has provided a break from doing education and has given me some time to think about it instead. 

Teachers are rubber bands.  We stand between two equally tension-stretched ends. One end is pulled by the tension of our students’ emerging futures and how to prepare them to master it. The other end is as tightly held by the traditions of the past, including not only the traditional work world but how to prepare workers for success.

The tension coming from our changing future is described by Andrea Schleicher as

“Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise.”

The other end is strongly pulled by the educational traditions of our country’s past; a system run by agricultural schedules, factory delivery and cookie-cutter products.  When tradition looks to the future, it can be described using Henry Ford’s brilliant quote:

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”  

Let’s take what we’ve always done – just do it better.

About 3 years ago I was introduced to the video “Changing Paradigms” by Sir Ken Robinson.  It jolted my traditional-thinking mind which started a spark of outside-the-box thinking. It is hard to begin thinking differently when all you know is what you know.   It’s a well-spent 11 minutes to watch.  Get ready to have your mind challenged and stretched.

Part of our problem in changing education is that teachers are in the only profession who have trained for their job their entire lives!  No lawyer sits in the courtroom beginning at age 5 (or even 4!) observing mentors for successful future closing arguments.  Young Doogie Howsers aren’t present in the doctor’s offices learning how to deal with patients or manage offices.  However, teachers’ understanding of education, both delivery and content, do begin at that tender young age.  We have been indoctrinated by traditional thinking our entire lives!  That’s the real stronghold of both the educational system and the teacher, Only passion for change from both will break through.  There are always new programs and ideas, but if the teacher doesn’t have a passion for preparing students for their futures – all the programs and training are in vain. We need our future-minded teachers who are “islands of excellence” to spread into continents throughout our districts.

Sir Ken Robinson stated it well: “Education can be encouraged from the top-down but can only be improved from the ground up.”

One of his concepts that really challenged me was that students shouldn’t be grouped merely by their birthdays.  Wow.  I hadn’t even considered that before.  How would that change learning – and provide students with real world type learning from one another?  Last week I read to a PreK class for Dr. Seuss’ birthday.  Adorable 4 year olds sitting in perfect rows on their reading mat – so polite and anxious.  On the 2nd row was a little boy who not only answered all my questions about Dr. Seuss, but even extended the rhyme scheme as I read.  He did it quietly – as if he already knew at 4 that he was different from the others around him.  What if he had some opportunity in his day to be around older children and could expand his thinking – rather than whispering it among his age peer group?

State and federal goals to empower student learning are based on Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). These work-force supportive skills include:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • creativity and innovation
  • adaptability
  • collaboration
  • communication (written, oral and blended and advanced media)
  • information sourcing and media literacy
  • self direction and self assessment
  • application of technology to workflow

In other words, rather than learning about technology, which has been the mainstay of education for many years – it should now be application of technology in all areas of learning.  That application is done through real work.  

Community partnerships available to students of all ages.
Mentor programs, locally based as well as remotely using communication technology
Tackling authentic issues
Collaborating with students in the classroom and around the world on common problems

Wrap all those opportunities in struggle. Our future workers need to be confident at adapting and not simply looking for a single right answer – but finding the best answer among many options.  There is so much wrapped up in this journey – determination, tenacity, resilience and gumption.  Those are the true work-a-day skills that students should be learning through the real-world work they do in school.  My favorite quote explains the most highly sought after skill:  

“The illiterate of the future will not be those who can’t read and write. It will be those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.”  

How are we preparing the kids for that??  An actual example of that quote we’ve all experienced is getting a new cellphone.  Everything you knew so well is no longer valid.  You start from scratch.  Your confidence level is shot.  You truly have to look at everything in a different way.  Welcome to 21st century work and life!

Reading/writing and math skills are certainly important.  But better to learn them the way humanity learns best – by doing – not by isolated practice.  The focus on testing for these skills, at the expense of those that will be required in adult life needs an overhaul.  How better if students left high school guaranteed with the skills in this graphic?

Real World Skills

If you’re curious about the role these skills play in our future-world, read Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind; Why Right-Brainers will Rule the World.  It should be required reading of all educators and high school students.

For teachers to educate for the future, we must exist in it ourselves.  That same list of P21 skills students needs to describe our own way of learning – where we live.  Take each bullet and self-assess yourself. Gone are the days of all-day, comprehensive staff development.  Teachers need to be active on Twitter, giving and receiving targeted, practical insights. We should actively collaborate with teachers down the hall and who are in other parts of the country. Teachers need to have blogs, not only to reflect on their own practice but to share with others. We need to value cross-curricular work – talk to art and music teachers about integration into your subject.   We need to adapt, have resilience, tenacity and gumption. 


In my district, GRIT is exemplified by the motto Show Your Stripes. We’re teaching and modeling how it applies to all areas of our lives.


Our authentic, real-world learning community, including students and teachers, will walk together down the exciting, but unknown, 21st century path.  But we won’t be simply riding a faster horse.  We’ll adapt and master whatever the ride.




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Intriguing the Boys


middle school chair

I love this picture.

I love teaching middle school boys.

It probably started with my love of teaching my own three sons.

But we are losing too many of our young men.  Their graduation rates, both high school and college, are dropping.  The unique spirited and joyful ways boys approach life don’t often translate well into the typical classroom. “Girl behavior is the gold standard in schools,” says psychologist Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.”

Several teachers are working with me to find practical solutions to turn this around. (with thanks to the Wills Point Rotary Club) We want our boys truly engaged in their learning.Through research and support – we’re learning together and trying strategies that will not only bring about academic success but guide our young men on the road to manhood. I’ll recount our journey here.


Click here for an infographic that illustrates the issue . If you click the photo you’ll get the full size.
Questing . . .


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Promethean Board request


A friendly contest to request a Promethean board be mounted in my classroom.


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October is Global Month in Lafferty’s classes!


I am so excited!  Two great opportunities to open our rural boundaries to students and adults around the world have begun. The first, Kiva, is a website dedicated to providing loans to adults in countries that don’t have access to banks and opportunities.  There are 100’s of adults with various needs (business start-up, community health, education, etc.) and for a loan of $25, regular folks around the world can work together to provide the needed financial help.  Students are each writing me a persuasive letter convincing me to loan to their chosen worthy cause. It was wonderful listening to their discussions – particularly about who they would NOT recommend a loan.  If their need seemed frivolous – or if their clothing was too nice – they passed them by.  Each class will have one paper selected as the most persuasive and the loan will be made in that class’ name.  It’s a wonderful opportunity for seeing the reality of other’s lives around the world.


Students browse hundreds of financial needs around the world to choose one they feel is most worthy of a loan.


Each is writing a persuasive letter including assertions and loaded language to convince me to select their choice. One letter in each class will be chosen for the $25 loan.


Another October event is the Global Read Aloud.  An amazing middle school teacher came up with an idea to connect students around the world by having them read books at the same time and share predictions, reflections and projects.  There are different books to choose from and we are reading Out of my Mind. It’s a very emotional book about an eleven year old girl who has cerebral palsy and is completely non-communicative, but is a genius!  No one knows it!  In fact, most believe she’s unable to learn.  We are searching for students to connect with through Edmodo to share our thoughts and predictions.

out of my mind


I will post updates and projects as they are completed.  Our theme of this school year is empathy and we are blessed to find such relevant and rich opportunities to practice! What a wonderful time to be alive and a teacher!

I learned to dream through reading, learned to create dreams through writing, and learned to develop dreamers through teaching. I shall always be a dreamer.” Sharon Draper

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“9/11: It’s much more than just a number.”


About three years ago, I realized something difficult to accept.  I was moving from sharing the events and emotions of 9/11 with my students to telling them about it. I am a rememberer. They only know what they’ve heard.  That’s huge! It hurts.  It is also a big responsibility because an adult must share the reality – not what she simply what she thinks or feels – and provide the opportunity for students to react and process the news just as we did 12 years ago. On their own terms.

I learned the term rememberer when I visited the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas.  The docent approached us at the door reminding us that rememberers were present in the museum and we needed to be respectful throughout our visit. What a different experience that museum was for me, who was only a child of 4 when JFK was assassinated. I just have head knowledge compared to a visitor who had been an adult in 1963 and truly experienced the day and its affects. That rememberer idea stuck with me. I began thinking of other life changing events that I had only heard or learned about rather than experienced.  What a frustration that is for someone who carries that experience in their heart – not just their head. Then I wondered what it was like to have had to tell someone about Jesus rather than being able to say, “Hey, remember when He did this? Or said that? Wow.

My fellow 8th grade teacher and I wanted our students to come as close to the 9/11 experience as possible. We planned our year’s sequence of genre studies to place Literary Nonfiction (which includes speeches) at the beginning of the year so we were able to spend Sept. 11th moving our students back in time to attempt an understanding of what our country went through. Only then are they able to understand and appreciate President Bush’s speech to us that very night and then his State of the Union to Congress 10 days later. Both are wonderfully written speeches including the strong  literary devices we teach in 8th grade.

They entered class that day with this sign above the door:


Immediately they knew something was different because there is typically music playing and a playful atmosphere. They all complied.  We played a Youtube of various video scenes of the day while “Where were You when the World Stopped Turning” was in the background.  Every year it gives me goosebumps and I hear sniffling zmong the kids.  We discuss the who and why and I end the discussion with this wonderful poem by Billy Collins who was  the U.S. poet laureate during 9/11:

“So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”  What an excellent poet.

Dead silence in the room.  Particularly after hearing the young girl in the video saying her own father’s name during the memorial.

I asked each student to take a sticky note to share a thought or an emotion they were feeling.  As they finished, they walked quietly into the hall and placed their sticky alongside the other students’ from the day. Their writings showed, in a very real way, we might not have shared that day – but they shared a portion of the shock and grief we all experienced. I was moved by their comments and wanted to share a few here.


911.1 911.2 911.3 911.4 911.5 911.6 911.7

Very perceptive students.

President Bush’s speech is below as a reminder.


A Great People is Moved to Defend a Great Nation

Good evening.

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge — huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.

Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans. Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared. Our emergency teams are working in New York City and Washington D.C. to help with local rescue efforts. Our first priority is to get help to those who have been injured, and to take every precaution to protect our citizens at home and around the world from further attacks. The functions of our government continue without interruption. Federal agencies in Washington which had to be evacuated today are reopening for essential personnel tonight and will be open for business tomorrow. Our financial institutions remain strong, and the American economy will be open for business as well.

The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts. I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.

I appreciate so very much the members of Congress who have joined me in strongly condemning these attacks. And on behalf of the American people, I thank the many world leaders who have called to offer their condolences and assistance. America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.

Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a Power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.

This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

Thank you. Good night. And God bless America.

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Guiding my year – just two simple questions


I’m sitting here on the Sunday night before school starts contemplating two questions:

1) If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?

2) Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?

(from Teach Like a Pirate)


Education is making a very needed change.  The shift is moving from working on the teaching in the classroom to focusing on the learningI have been blessed to attend many learning opportunities over the past two years and read amazing books that are shifting my paradigm.  One of the speakers this summer in Tulsa, made a point I’d never heard.  “Teaching is the only profession where workers have been in training since they were 5 years old.”  Think about it!  Little future teachers come into school and spend 17+ years observing their mentors in action. Mannerisms, teaching styles, testing procedures, room arrangement – all are firmly in place before we step into our first teaching assignment. Little lawyers and little insurance adjusters don’t begin until after college.  It’s no wonder our ideas about teaching are so ingrained.


But I’m not THAT old. 🙂


On the other hand, we have students whose lives revolve around staying connected all day (and sometimes all night!), instant information, and amazing CGI graphics.  My 20 years of education didn’t revolve around any of that!

So, as an educator, my job is to educate.  That means to ensure learning for these children who give me a blank stare when I mention Bruce Willis or have never heard a Beatles’ song. It is not about them reaching back in the past to find where I’m coming from.  It’s their future (that is so amazingly unknown to all of us) that I am helping guide them towards.

So, this all boils down to our moments in the classroom.  We’ve been given the blessing of more time in each class this year.  Rather than entertainment, it’s about challenge and inspiration.  It’s about thinking on a higher level and sharing a love of learning. I love the challenge to me of creating experiences that students wish their friends could come to share.  Selling tickets? Amazing goal.  I’m working toward that!

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I can’t wait to get out of school – no more reading!!!


A fellow teacher sent me this info-graphic recently and it surprised me.



Click to enlarge.

I would want to know where this data came from, but as a literacy teacher, this is not what I wanted to find!  Never read another book?  And the percentage is even higher for college graduates?  That is hard for me to understand.

I often talk to my students about reading after they finish school.  I tell them that they will never “have” to read a fiction book again. There is no required adult reading list (although I wish there was!).  Some cheer when they find that out. However, they will READ all day, everyday. While they don’t have to read the newspaper, they are required to read and understand medical diagnoses, tax forms, contracts, etc.  And as we know, this formal reading can be difficult to understand if we aren’t strong readers – and our lives and money can depend on understanding before we sign.

There is an objective process, free of charge, to help us know the level of our children’s reading and the track they need to remain on for life success. The Lexile reading system is a difficulty ranking of nearly every piece of literature and informational text to match the texts’ difficulty with the ability level of the reader. Ranking is done by both word and sentence lengths.   STAAR tests include a student’s Lexile rank, based on the score achieved, on the student’s Confidential Report.  Once that level is known – parents and teachers can help students choose books tailor made for their level to ensure deep comprehension. On the free Lexile page, there is a “Search by Lexile” function which allows anyone to find books on a particular level.  We can also search by book for its Lexile.

You can access the Lexile level chart here: Lexile Map  It includes examples of both literature and informational reading in each level, as well as a sample text.  While the Lexile system does not like to include grade equivalents for levels – they do include a chart here with typical measures. A person’s Lexile range, or reading comprehension “sweet spot,” is from 100L below to 50L above his or her reported Lexile measure.

Not only is this a strong tool for students to use to improve their own comprehension, we learn that some of our most important documents were written at the post-college level.  The Constitution of the United States of America? Level 1560 – beyond college level.  The Declaration of Independence?  College Level Reading. These documents we certainly want to deeply comprehend and not base our freedoms on what someone tells us they mean.

A Lexile of 1200 is considered senior high school level reading. A senior should graduate able to read at this level.  What in our real life reading matches?

Lexile Real Work Application

While some may believe their reading stops with school – we realize it continues at post-high school levels for everyday and important required text. Even in careers we might assume don’t requires reading,  we see that manuals in careers such as construction and ag. train with manuals that are post high school level reading.

The target level for college/career readiness (CCR) in 6-8th grade readers is 925L-1185L.  This needs to be the target to meet for every middle school reader to ready them for high school.  Does your student fall in that range?  If not, as in all skills – it just takes practice.  And simply reading at school is not enough.  Family reading times, trips to the library, reading at the park and then talking about what’s read would benefit the entire family.  We all need to make sure we are challenging ourselves with reading that will keep our skills fresh. We need to encourage our children to read often and to realize the necessity of  life long reading. Don’t be part of that uninformed adult majority shown in the graphic above!

Florida has good ideas for secondary parents to encourage reading at home and includes questions for good family discussions. If you would like more ideas, let me know!

(Quantile is a similar system for math.  You can access it here.)

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How do marshmallows impact earnings?


“Junior, you need to go college” is probably one of the better known mommy-isms, second only to ‘Be careful, that’ll put your eye out!”  Due to the changes in our modern workforce, (including globalization) – we need to step up the heat on our kids and proclaim college as a non-negotiable.  Taking a few minutes to look at a government produced education vs. earnings report steps up our passion for its value. Take a look: (Click to enlarge.)


Starting, sticking with, and finishing college is one of the hardest things one can do.  It’s hard when many friends don’t value the time and work it takes to finish. It’s hard when starting a job gives money that looks awfully good to an 18 year old – but we know that same money can’t provide the dreams for his family which will be part of his life soon.  It’s hard when it gets HARD and the time is long and the expense is high.  College students are in cycles of hard work for what seems to be forever. But as adults, we know that 4-5 years of school are just a drop in the bucket of life.

There was once a psychiatrist who conducted a test and he claimed he could predict at 5 years old if a student would finish college.  He set up a camera in a room and put a child at a small table with a plate that held one marshmallow.  He left, telling the child that if she could keep from eating that marshmallow until he got back, he’d give her more marshmallows. The camera recorded child after child and the obvious dilemma they faced.  Many tried to wait out the temptation – but couldn’t – and ended up quickly (and rather guiltily) eating the marshmallow. A few had the vision of more marshmallows filling their mind and seemed to have no problem waiting for the promise.

Those students who couldn’t wait? They were those who would be unable to finish college, according to the study.  They couldn’t set aside the pleasures of the moment and have faith in the promise of a better future. That is, after all, what stands in the way of many students finishing.  Self control and dogged determination. How can I wait for 4 years when I have a job paying $10 an hour right now? That’s more than any of my friends make!!

As parents and teachers, that study is certainly something to think about.  We can mentally tick through our children to see who could set the marshmallow aside.  But is it as set as the doctor predicted? Certainly not. No one’s dye is set by 6 – or even by 14.  We can work the way our child is bent and influence them to stick with school.  Some of our children might need more emotional support through the process than others. Our children look to us for their vision – until they firmly have one of their own.

Let’s keep the value of education in our conversation, expectations and mindset as part of our regular (even daily) family relationships.  Look at graphs and reports such as the one above with your children and analyze it together.  Note the difference in not only salary, but also the unemployment rates.  And then remind our children that they hold the power in their hands to write their lives at the upper 1/3 of that graph.

“Show me your vision, and I’ll show you your future.”

A book dedication from a man who believes strongly in the possibility of a college education for every student:

“”This book is dedicated to every child who has been doubted. To all of the children in housing projects, barrios, cities, and countrysides who feel that life is hopeless, it is not hopeless! If a young man from the north end of Flint, Michigan, can be an educated scholar, the sky is the limit for you. Keep your head held high, and show the world your talent. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will fight for you, but you have to fight for yourself, too. ”


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Smart Phone over Driver’s License?


One of my strong memories is waking up early on a summer August morning in 1975  to take my driver’s test. I arrived before the DPS office opened – and sat out on the curb nervously waiting. I realized this was a life changing day – mine would ever be the same!  Back then everyone I knew got their license.  We all celebrated each other’s 16th birthday welcoming another driver into the ‘club.’

But today?  Here’s a bit of data: “In 1970, 72% of teens had a driver’s license.  In 2011, 50% did.  They would rather have a smartphone.  95% of teens say a cell phone gives them freedom.”

digital native

I love my cell phone, but at my age and with my experiences I would never choose it over my car!  How is a teenager’s society and life so different from mine that our understandings of freedom are so different? The freedom I felt to go wherever I wanted is satisfied for today’s teens by the social connections they make, as well as the Internet at their fingertips, without leaving their homes.

Getting a license today is more difficult than in my day. Driver’s ed classes used to be the staple of summer school – and our instructors were our school teachers.  They were convenient and reasonably priced, but that is no longer the case. Rules for young drivers have also changed drastically, making it not as attractive.

Teens given the choice and choosing the phone is also affecting the economy.  Car dealerships are feeling the drop in purchases and advertising needs to encourage teen purchases – not just one car over another.

I am determined to stay aware of the differences of these “digital natives” and it certainly affects my teaching. I work to make the need for critical reading valuable in their lives – even if it’s a life I don’t experience.  They will be entering a workforce that will contains jobs that aren’t invented yet.  Research shows they will change professions at least 4 times throughout their lives. But no matter what each child’s future holds – they will need to be deep critical readers and fluent writers.  They’ll need to problem solve and work effectively in collaboration – maybe even with people they only know through e*meetings.

Whatever freedom means to them – I want them to have the tools to live it fully.      Digital

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