AltSchool Hub

How to pick quality educational apps: A quick guide from our teachers

Posted by Erin Zaich

Nov 10, 2015 1:14:18 PM

Children are growing up in a digital age where “google” is a verb and they expect every screen to be responsive to their touch. As technology drives our daily lives forward, enabling a multitude of new experiences, it seems only natural that learning in schools should reflect the tenor of the world around us.

Technology has the power to facilitate personalization in learning, both in the classroom and at home. But choosing apps and digital resources for children can feel daunting due to the large number available. When approached as an afterthought, technology can lead to the digital equivalent of a worksheet rather than dynamic tools that create valuable learning experiences.

There are a few simple guidelines I like to follow when deciding what apps to use in the classroom, and the same guidelines can apply at home:

1. Does this app allow me to do something otherwise unimaginable without technology?

When assessing digital tools to use with students, I always strive to focus on the learning outcomes of the project as the focal point. Then, I seek out tools that allow me to transform the learning process into something unimaginable had the technology not existed. Technology allows us to do some pretty unbelievable things in the classroom and at home, from simply taking and annotating pictures of our work to recreating models of our learning. I love leveraging Skitch as a tool for observation in the classroom. This app allows students to take pictures and annotate them. We’ve used the app for in-class scavenger hunts, labeling a science experiments, and more. I want students to walk away from a learning period engaged and excited, and this can happen both because of, and in spite of, a tool. 

2. Can my child and I interact together with this app?

Creating and collaborating with your children while taking advantage of technology is incredibly rewarding. Encouraging questions and seeking answers together, rather than passively consuming media, offers insights into your child’s creative and critical thinking skills. Any movie making app (iMovie, Book Creator, My Story, and more) is great for creating digital stories with your child. From creating a reflection about the learnings from the day or developing a full story arc with characters, setting, and more, any child will love using these apps in creative ways.

3. Is the app open-ended? 

When an app can be used across multiple skill sets and content areas, you have a real gem. Kids will learn which apps they love and want to use them in creative ways both in school and at home. By investing time into these open-ended, creative apps, we allow kids to dream up what they can do with them, thereby redefining what was once possible. I love Explain Everything because it can be applied across disciplines. From making videos about mathematical concepts to creating book trailers, the app is focused on creation so that you are able to use it in a variety of settings.

4. If the app is focused on practicing a specific skill, what is the added benefit of using the app versus something else?

There is a time and a place for practicing skills like grammar and multiplication facts. When evaluating apps that focus on mastery of a topic or task (e.g. spelling), look to see if it is reimagining the learning experience in a way only possible with technology (going back to the first guideline). If the app is doing something new and creative with practicing a skill, try it out! Think about the engagement of your child and how he or she will interact with the practice. Motion Math is super engaging. I love the different levels and concepts covered. Many coding apps are wonderful for practicing foundational and conceptual skills. In class we use Scratch on the computer, and the Scratch Jr. app is well crafted and laid out as well.

To summarize, here are some of my favorite digital learning tools,and suggestions for how you can use them at home:

Ages: All
Subject: Open-ended
Activity Suggestion: Annotate photos from a vacation with key ideas and details, which helps build communication skills.

iMovie, Explain Everything, Educreations, Green Screen
Ages: All
Subject: Open-ended
Activity Suggestion: Make a video about your day and send it to a relative as a means to connect. This ties the activity with a meaningful intention.

Bee Bot, Daisy the Dinosaur, Kodable, ScratchJr
Ages: All
Subject: Coding
Activity Suggestion: Work together on coding something fun, inventive, or immediately useful at home.


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Topics: School, AltSchool Innovation

Three Techniques for Teaching Digital Literacy

Posted by Kay de Veer and Paul France

Sep 2, 2015 11:00:00 AM

This article was originally posted on EdSurge.


Twenty-five years ago, the term “literacy” was synonymous with the printed word. Today, that definition has evolved and being literate necessitates more than simply interacting with text. We must be digitally literate, too.

Teachers have an even harder task; we must cultivate this ability to adapt to constantly changing mediascapes while simultaneously preserving students’ writing skills in their purest form. This may sound intimidating, but there are simple things you can do to help prepare students.

1. Teach How to Mindfully “Read” New Media digital_literacy2222

Many teachers have started to supplement traditional curriculum with everything from video to online articles. But simply adding in new content isn’t enough. We must instill a complementary skillset that enables students to closely read things within those mediums. Believe it or not, this can be done with lessons you currently have--with a bit of tweaking.

In the same way we deconstruct themes, plot development and perspective in literature, we can teach how to decode digital media. As you introduce an infographic or video clip into class, ask students to unpack its mode and type of media--what genre and what form is it? Consider the audience--who is the intended reader, viewer, subscriber? Evaluate motive, bias and intention--what was the content creator’s purpose? Examine the context--does when and where it was created offer important clues? Discuss the pros and cons in using images or video to tell a story versus text--what is better expressed in each form and what are the drawbacks?

Often these discussions begin as teacher-facilitated and slowly turn to student-led. For example, our six and seven-year-old students organically began discussing the recent earthquake in Nepal based on a photo of a child in the rubble, following a facilitated conversation around photos. They inferred how the child might be feeling, commented on the landscape depicted and compared the child to themselves. Photos and video can capture real-life emotions in a way that text does not.

If you’re doing a lesson on the American Revolution or World War II for example, students might have stronger reactions to the information presented when they see visual representations of the realities of war. Encourage students to posit their perspectives in a speculative fashion, such as “they might be feeling scared” or “they might be angry at the soldiers.” We must teach these tools to create an environment where students feel safe to voice their opinions on the content presented.

AMP_AltSchool_ExplorFM-2015-01-13-13942. Help Students Become Makers and Tinkerers--of Text

Reading and writing are creative tasks, requiring both the building and breaking down of words--or “tinkering.” As literacy develops, a student’s toolbox grows, and the forums in which students can build grow too. You can help students transition from what frequently is their comfort zone (i.e. 140-character updates and pictures) to more in-depth commentary, such as a written blog.

Create simple tools for your class like flexible, common rubrics, to enable students to self select topics, publish journals, music, or videos weekly, and then iterate on their work over time. These short, on-demand curation tasks not only build writing stamina and ownership of their craft, they also reinforce the iterative nature of writing.

Say you have a student struggling with writing fluency. Brainstorm with her to find a subject she’s passionate about like airplanes or animals. Ask her to begin by just finding and posting pictures on those subjects to her blog and encourage her to then discuss the images with her peers. Meanwhile, your primary role is to enable her to better communicate her interests by adding words and phrases to accompany the photos. What she’s doing is essentially “tinkering” with more and more text.

Within a few weeks, she will be constructing multi–sentence entries, and slowly but surely, you will have helped her to transition from a photo blog to a written blog. The key is to select a topic she is invested in and therefore more likely to maintain.


3. Offer Guidance to Becoming Responsible Digital Citizens

Our generation was thrown into the digital age--and had to fumble along as we went. However, we are now the first generation of teachers with the power and responsibility to shape how future generations will use those same tools; to become good digital citizens.

With younger students, that begins with interactive conversations around the best-practices of using devices. Use the classroom to problematize things like how much time is appropriate to be in front of a screen, whether it’s safe to walk while using a tablet, and what you should do when someone speaks to you while you are using that device.

For older students, who will likely be using digital communication, collaboration or blogging tools, address how to avoid plagiarism, approaches and criteria to find quality online resources, and how to give and receive constructive feedback. You’ll find these conversations are even more impactful when augmented by hands-on learning.


You might plan a lesson that requires students to provide feedback to each other on their writing via a resource like Edmodo. Start by asking students to pick and then post a sentence that needs revising. Instruct students to propose various writing strategies for improvement and within minutes you’ll have whole walls of suggestions.

This exercise lets students practice digital citizenship in a controlled setting, so that you can mentor them in the art of constructive criticism. Just imagine the practical implications to this small task, from navigating the Comments section of news sites, interacting with friends on Instagram to someday collaborating with colleagues. Plus, it reinforces the concept that although online reading and writing may seem ephemeral, our words may be viewed by millions and recorded for an eternity.

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Topics: School, AltSchool Innovation

Reading or Recess? How interest-driven projects create a love of learning

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Jun 4, 2015 10:27:43 AM

It’s one of those (rare) sunny, blue-skied days in San Francisco, and my lower elementary class gallops outside for recess. This time, however, it’s not for long! After only a few minutes outside, several students excitedly run to me, out of breath, and beg “Kelly, can we please go inside to work on our reading project!?”

You heard that right: kindergarten and 1st grade students wanted to forgo recess to read. In all of my eight years of teaching, I have never seen such a high level of student engagement when it came to reading. For most of us educators, students tend to resist reading lessons when they’re challenging, and especially when those lessons follow recess.

I had to ask myself — why do my students suddenly want to stop free play to work on their reading? What is making them so engaged?

The magic of interest-driven learning

Our class was in the middle of an interest-driven project— a type of learning methodology in which students drive their own learning journeys. And this time round, we were working on a Reader’s Theater, in which the class imagined, wrote, and eventually performed an original play in front of their families.

Turning play into valuable learning experiences

Many interest-driven projects start with observation; the teacher’s role, in this case, is to investigate student interests, and by teasing out these interests through a project, guide children in a process of self-discovery. For example, during recess I saw that many students loved to create elaborate storylines among their friends, each with unique characters, and act out a scene throughout recess. Recognizing the class was full of natural playwrights, improvisers, and actors, I thought to incorporate their interests into our reading lessons.This way, students feel like school is free play, hardly realizing they’re learning at the same time.

Screen_Shot_2015-06-03_at_1.51.43_PMAfter brainstorming a story for a play as a class— a triumphant tale involving vegimals, kitty cats, and telling time, I wrote a script for the play integrating their ideas with critical sight words and phonetic skills. What emerged was a progression of lessons with high student engagement, while developing essential math skills of telling time, and foundational reading skills of reading fluently with expression.  

The resulting energy and engagement was tangible throughout the class, not to mention sustained through many weeks of pulling together this production. Throughout this student-driven project, I was continually amazed by the depth of student engagement and learning, from taking ownership to developing grit. Here are five skills I was delighted to see the students develop in the four-week unit.  

1. Ownership: “We have to practice our lines!”

The students were the drivers in creating the story and producing the play from start to finish. It’s often the teacher’s role to remind students to rehearse and prepare; however, I regularly heard students reminding each other and themselves about what was needed for the big performance. “We need to practice our lines today,” or “we need to make our costumes,” communicated the natural ownership, pride, and excitement students had for their production.

2. Teamwork: “I know, let’s have both vegimals and students!”

Screen_Shot_2015-06-03_at_1.52.11_PMThroughout the entire process from reading and practicing, to making costumes and performing,students had different (read: strong) ideas about various elements of their production. Together, they had to solve problems and compromise in order to create a unified production. For example, at one point a deepening chasm seemed to emerge, dividing the class into two distinct camps: one side wanted the story to be about vegimals, and the other was set on a class of students. At last one student shouted: “I know, let’s have both the vegimals and kitty cats be teacher pets!” Differences were allied, and off we went.

3. Creativity and Imagination: “Time to make our costumes! I want to make a hat with a clock on it.”

The sky was the limit for this project. Student creativity and imagination flowed through every aspect of this project, from coming up with the storyline (no teacher, for example, would have come up with a vegimal- and kitty cat-centered plot) to making costumes, and acting out the performance.

4. Depth of Experience: “When do we get to practice our show?”

Students at this age, no matter how interested they are, often lose interest once the novelty of a project has worn off, but not this project. After two weeks of developing the story, students started to ask: “when do we get to practice!?” It was remarkable to see students still so engaged after four solid weeks.

5. Grit & Entrepreneurship: “I’ll change my my voice to act like my character.”


Managing the process from end to end— from conception to production— is an incredibly entrepreneurial activity. Each component required something new from each student, whether that be rehearsing lines to building a set.

The level of engagement and scope of the project also pushed their reading abilities. Reading with expression is difficult for students in lower elementary, and when faced with this challenge students showed determination to learn to read these difficult words and persevered. Some even took a step further to change the tone to embody their character’s voice.

And finally, the students put on an incredible performance for their parents that reflected weeks of practice, perseverance, originality, and teamwork. Not to mention, their final product inspired a standing ovation and some pretty proud parents.

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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Classroom Stories

The Value in Making Makers: Why AltSchool Teaches Tinkering

Posted by Sarah Rothenberg

Apr 8, 2015 10:15:00 AM

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at user-driven design? How about building, say, an airplane propellor, connecting “squishy” circuits, or playing video games with bananas? (Yes indeed, bananas.)

photo_4-3AltSchool recently hosted our inaugural Family Maker Day. The day gave parents and students the chance to tinker, experiment, build, paint, sculpt, and more. Maker education encourages students to explore through building and creating, and it is core to AltSchool’s project-based learning approach.

And based on the success of our recent Maker Day, I thought to reflect on just why I integrate maker education in my lower elementary classroom.

1. There’s no failure when you’re making things: experimentation teaches “grit”

We encourage children to be OK with making mistakes. We can often gain the deepest insights and learnings through our mistakes. Most parents and children are surprised when I offer a pencil without an eraser to my 5 year olds. I do this because I celebrate mistakes as not just a learning experience, but as a vehicle for self-improvement— to make us stronger.

Through designing, testing, building, failing, and iterating, children can gain a healthy mindset about mistakes and reflect on how these mistakes actually facilitate continual improvement.

2. Maker projects allow students to find and express their own passions

When students are given the chance to engage in a project of their choice, we, as educators, can see if students gravitate towards, say, clay, circuitry, or building blocks. We can then use this creative energy to develop their natural interests through inspiring learning experiences. When students are passionate about what they are doing, their imaginations blossom and the learning becomes exciting.

Our goal is to equip students early with experiences to build an early foundation for continued self-growth and exploration.


3. Making and tinkering inspires real-life problem-finding skills

Maker projects inspires both problem-finding and problem-solving skills. Using design-thinking principles, children are challenged to think about different types of users, identify problems, design solutions, and test their ideas in a tactile, engaging (and fun) way! These real-life connections hook the children into a project that is meaningful and relatable.

4. Partner-based maker projects can inspire collaboration beyond the classroom

photo2Maker events like our Family Maker Day can provide great opportunities for community building and collaboration. In our Maker Event, our maker education guru Maria created partner-centered activities that had to be done by both child and adult. For example, many of the maker stations were slightly too difficult for children— either physically or scientifically advanced. The dynamic of such projects required parents to take a guiding role, thereby stretching student learning curves and bringing parents and children closer together. This allowed the parents to get their hands dirty alongside their child.

Maker projects also bring together the school community of educators. Each teacher has a unique skillset and individual interests. Maker events and projects provide opportunities for us to creatively encourage hands-on projects for students in line with our areas of expertise, interests, or lesson plans. Katie Gibbons, the head of the Fort Mason location that hosted the fair, has a beautiful way of fostering this type of unique creativity among teachers. Her encouragement of maker education continually provides ways to engage, inspire, motivate, and bring together the educators at our school.

5. You have great final products to show off!

Last, after a day of tinkering and building, every family has a great project to take home and share with those around them— it’s a natural community builder.


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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Classroom Stories, Fort Mason

This is why AltSchool is taking a “full stack” approach to education: A16z Podcast with Max Ventilla

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Mar 30, 2015 1:41:00 PM

The “full stack” model is a growing trend among startups. As opposed to the traditional approach of selling or licensing technology to established organizations, the full stack startup builds and manages a complete end-to-end product or service, thereby bypassing incumbents.

So why take a full stack approach to education?

“You want to own the total outcome,” says A16z General Partner and AltSchool investor, Lars Delgaard. “We are building the world’s biggest private school system. To make that experience the one we want— one that is more affordable, better, and revolutionary— you need to have full ownership.”


In case you missed it, a16z’s podcast series hosted and moderated by Andreessen Horowitz, one of AltSchool’s investors, recently interviewed AltSchool CEO and founder Max Ventilla and Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Lars Delgaard. The pair discuss what it means to take a full stack approach to education, AltSchool’s plan for scale, and integrating technology in the classroom.

The benefits of full stack: questioning those “sacred cows”

AltSchool is building schools from the ground up. And in doing so, it is re-imagining every part of the education experience, from the admissions process to curriculum balance; from the school calendar to administration costs. “If you rely on other entities to do key parts of your approach,” says Max, “then very quickly that becomes the bottleneck for the changes that you would need to make elsewhere to really improve the experience.”

And some of those necessary changes include reversing “sacred cows,” or unquestioned ways of doing things, within the education system. Some of these “reversals” highlighted in the A16z interview include:

A New Approach to Class Assessments

“Today standardized tests are taken at the end of the year and sit on the shelf for months,” says Max. AltSchool views assessments as critical inputs for the educational experience— they shouldn’t be done away with altogether, but instead optimized and used in a way to promote continual improvements.

“Assessments should instead be close to real-time, non-invasive, as accurate as possible, and provides input to that teacher, student, and parents to make improvements on what’s working and what we can change.” When engaged correctly, assessments can empower teachers, students, parents and schools with actionable data to quickly understand and make improvements throughout the year.

Empowering Teachers Through Technology

AMP_AltSchool_FM-2015-01-14-0116A major challenge for teachers today is the time spent on creating individual lesson plans for the specifics of each class— what Max calls “bespoke, artisanal lesson planning.” And though timely, this artisanal approach is necessary to navigate the complexities of teaching to a unique set of students and within specific school schema.

One way AltSchool hopes to empower teachers is to provide them with a technological platform that makes it easier for them to share and use best practices across teacher networks. The goal is to create an operating system that makes all other elements of teaching easier, like communicating with parents and the administration, more effectively personalizing curriculum to each student, and sharing best practices with others.

“Teachers continually contribute to the product,” says Lars. “All the teachers have the platform, time, and incentive financially to spend time to figure out together the best [playlist] cards and education series. They continually share and build content with students so they can benefit from all the best teachers.”

Erasing the zero sum game realities of private schools: AltSchool’s “network effect”

Limited spaces available at private schools create uncomfortable competition between families. As Max notes, “if I get my daughter into a private school, I am literally stealing a spot from someone else.” The fact that spots are limited for students in private educational institutions, creates a “value in scarcity” model— that is, there is increased value placed on selective educational experiences.

Whereas many private schools are deliberately not scalable— much of the value they possess is in their scarcity— AltSchool is built to scale, and get better as it scales. According to Max, “When you have something that gets better as more people participate, then you continually keep pace with the change in the world at large.”

AltSchool’s plan is to continually expand its network of “micro-schools” to make AltSchool increasingly available to more and more families. And by simultaneously licensing technology that helps personalize education to other schools, AltSchool has the goal of providing every child with a personalized learning experience commensurate with what 21st Century education should be.

Want to learn more? Listen to the full 40-minute interview and feel free to leave comments below.

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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Thoughts from Our Founder

What happens when students assess their schools for a change?

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Mar 24, 2015 12:28:00 PM

IMG_1833How many schools can you name that collect regular feedback from students about their satisfaction and happiness? Most likely a few (or even none) come to mind.

In building our student satisfaction program at AltSchool, we reached out to other schools to learn about their satisfaction practices and found it surprising that few ask for regular feedback from their students. Even fewer schools actually take action on that feedback. If a school’s goal is to help foster and develop its students to their fullest potentials, shouldn’t students have an active voice in this process?  

Feedback is core to AltSchool’s growth plan. One of our tenets is to become better as we scale, and in order to improve rapidly we regularly solicit and make changes based on feedback from our stakeholders: parents, teachers, and students. The collaboration between these groups allows each to actively co-create and improve the learning experiences at AltSchool. And students are at the center of this. In addition to assessing progression, we want to understand and measure the degree to which students are happy, supported, and engaged. We want to ensure that their voices are heard and are driving the educational experiences they receive.  

After completing the second student feedback cycle, we wanted to share some of the intangible and tangible results of our student satisfaction program. Here are five reasons why assessing student satisfaction is so important within school environments:

1. We’re on a learning journey together

By proactively asking students to provide feedback about their experiences—from the curriculum and course materials, to their teachers and classmates, to field trips or overall happiness—AltSchool is gaining the information needed to improve and grow as an organization. We recognize that like our students, AltSchool is on its own learning journey and improving as we grow.

2. Students learn to reflect

The process of reflecting is healthy for children. At AltSchool, we discourage students from passively absorbing content, and we instead invite them to choose academic paths that interest them most. Through reflection, students develop ownership and agency in their learning, which is only augmented when they know that their school will work to improve, too.


3. We can test our perceptions of student happiness

In addition to surveying students, we asked teachers and parents to rate each child’s satisfaction. We could then see if parents and teachers have a truly accurate perception of each student’s satisfaction across multiple areas in their learning experience.

After our first feedback cycle we found that there was not a statistical correlation between teacher and parent predictions of student happiness and the students’ own happiness ratings. These results further confirmed for us just how important it is that we ask students themselves about their own happiness at school! Though close, parents and teachers can only provide part of the story.

4. Feedback empowers teachers with additional insights

Schools and teachers may be reticent to student feedback for fear of evaluation, but we’ve found that reviewing feedback together is an effective way for teachers to celebrate successes and identify opportunities. We’ve held group working sessions in which teachers were given their individual student and classroom level data, as well as their classroom data compared to the overall network. We asked them: do you see any patterns among students? Were there any surprises?  What are you proud of? What concerns you most?

The responses were extremely positive! Through data, teachers were able to confirm their hunches and also uncover certain areas for improvement.

5. We gain benchmarks for improvement

In soliciting student satisfaction feedback we can assess other areas critical for student happiness and success. To assess whole-child well-being, we divided our surveys into three overarching categories:

  1. Classroom environment

  2. Feelings of success, and

  3. Qualities of a successful learner

The classroom environment focused on areas relating to AltSchool’s physical space and the degree to which in-class offerings meet student needs; feelings of success centered on topics such as the child’s sense of belonging, esteem, and relationships in the classroom (teacher or peer); and qualities of a successful learner focused on student engagement, grit, expectations, and rigor.

Having only conducted one survey cycle in its current form, we now have benchmarks to continually gauge improvement. We can benchmark across all students and classrooms, as well as year over year. The survey also surfaced invaluable qualitative data from students through their comments.  When asked, students provide insights and solutions that may not have bubbled up in the classroom. For example, one teaching team incorporated more art into their class after many students shared a desire for more art.

Last thoughts

We’ve found that implementing a formal feedback program helps to create healthy culture of listening, collaboration, and reflection. We look forward to continually gaining insights and improvements through our learning journey with AltSchool students, parents, and teachers.


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Topics: AltSchool Innovation

Scaling a Personalized Education Model: Reflections on the Past Twelve Months

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Mar 4, 2015 7:53:00 AM

Last March we announced $33 Million in funding from Founders Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, and other leading investors. Since then AltSchool has opened three additional schools, increased enrollment from 20 to 150 students and more than tripled company headcount – from 30 to 100+ employees. Over 2,200 candidates applied for 20 new teacher spots in 2014. This fall, AltSchool will open new schools from California to New York to accommodate 500 students in 2015.

Square0558At AltSchool, scale is at the heart of our approach. In fact, AltSchool is built in such a way that the more we grow, the more we are able to improve experiences for everyone involved. The bigger we get, the more feedback we can collect from students, parents, and teachers; the more best-practices and knowledge we can share internally through our product and community; and the more we can empower teachers and parents to create personalized experiences for each student.

Today, as we begin a new chapter by welcoming domain experts to our executive team in Engineering, Safety, Product Management, and Finance, we’re sharing achievements from the past twelve months that will set us up for continued growth and innovation.

Expanding from Single to Networked Schools

When we started AltSchool, our goal was to build a network of schools rather than a standalone school. That networked approach enables us to simultaneously maintain small, intimate class sizes while expanding to more students and families. In 2014, we successfully grew from a single school to four schools in San Francisco and will open in Palo Alto and Brooklyn later this year while we add expand to two additional neighborhoods in San Francisco.

The AltSchool platform is built for sharing knowledge across our teacher network; it enables our educators to actively create curriculum in ways that make it easy for other educators to access and build on the work of others throughout subsequent years. During 2014, our technology empowered educators to track and manage every facet of their students’ education; moving towards a future we often describe as “Montessori 2.0.”

The first step has been logging and tagging curriculum choices within the platform. Beginning this year, our system will start “pushing” information to educators to help them to proactively enhance students’ learning – from discovering the best techniques to teach difficult algebra problems to recommending phonics tools that are particularly useful for beginning readers. AltSchool educators will have a rich pool of resources to draw from to build personalized learning plans for individual students or to enhance the classroom experience by sourcing vetted best practices from other educators within the network.

Collecting and Actioning Real-time Student, Parent, and Teacher Feedback

AltSchool actively solicits and drives internal improvement by collecting regular feedback from three critical stakeholders: students, parents, and teachers. We have three internal teams who are respectively focused on increasing the satisfaction of each group. This way, students, parents, and teachers are co-creators in the educational experience and AltSchool can respond in real-time to their needs.


In 2014, we asked students to evaluate and rank their education experience at AltSchool. Students shared their perspective on ten categories that included everything from interest in subjects to their classroom environment. Based on student preferences, we are “unbundling” extracurricular activities, restructuring the balance of indoor versus outdoor play spaces and finding new ways to incorporate video into the academic experience.

For parents, our focus began with a goal of continuous and efficient communication, a system in which information flows in both directions. But our commitment to parent satisfaction extends beyond that; we also rely on parents to help us shape our schools and inform our products. Over the past year, we introduced quarterly Parent Satisfaction Surveys. Through our survey program, we learned that parents prefer to be notified about their child’s learning achievements differently, depending on the type of information being shared. For example, parents might like to see a video of their five year-old reading her first sentence immediately, while an update on a long-term project may be better communicated in a weekly Learning Update.

Moving forward, we’re developing a newsfeed-like resource to support real-time updates on student progress, as well as a Learning Progression datasheet (a cumulative overview that summarizes key information to track students’ progress against standards). We also learned that parents want more opportunities to connect with other AltSchool families. We recently hired a Head of Community to work with parents to accelerate and nurture classroom, site, and network-wide relationships.

We’ve also implemented a series of programs to support and help empower our teachers. For example, each month teachers take a 130-point Teacher Satisfaction Survey to proactively evaluate how we can improve their experience. That includes everything from offering professional development opportunities to how well substitute teachers perform to lunch options. Our School Experience Committee meets with teachers on a weekly basis to shape policies in a way that will ensure their success. Plus, we’ve leveraged a customer support portal to manage day-to-day workflow as issues arise. In the past year alone we’ve processed hundreds of requests from educators, solving actual teacher problems in real-time so that they can focus on students.  

Offline Learning Augmented by Increased Digital Tracking and Monitoring

Square1162The majority of student learning at AltSchool happens away from a screen. Technology, however, enables us to document and track progress in each student’s Learner Portrait, a sort of supercharged transcript. Technology allows us to capture all aspects of a student’s work, including a teacher’s assessment and the student’s own reflection on each assignment.

Next year, the amount of real-world work captured digitally in a Learner Portrait will more than double. This documentation supercharges teachers' abilities to communicate the richness of the school day home to parents and create digital student portfolios. Such tools also help to consolidate information for teachers to review more efficiently and to showcase examples of completed student work for future reference.

We also successfully prototyped several tools to impact personalization, with many more to be integrated into our platform next year. For example, the Teacher Observation Tool is an iPad / iPhone software product that gives educators an easy way to capture scans of learning artifacts in the classroom and away from school so that the information is directly absorbed into the AltSchool Learning Cycle suite of products. As we find more ways to learn from the community outside of the classroom, we are leveraging technology that enables us to integrate these experiences into our digital learning platform.

These changes reflect our ideology in action, always using first principles as our guide to completely reimagine education from the ground up. We look forward to sharing more behind-the-scenes updates about how we’re working to make AltSchool’s vision of a modern, 21st century education a reality for all children.

Read our March 4, 2015 press release announcing new additions to our leadership team: 


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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, AltSchool in the Press

How We Build Better Teachers: AltSchool Professional Development

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Aug 15, 2014 9:36:00 AM

TeacherPD2What happens when you bring together twenty-four of the country’s most exceptional educators to share with each other?

A beautiful teaching community emerges.

In the spirit of building a better teacher, we gave our teachers the opportunity to design their own professional development experience.

Over the past five weeks, new teachers explored, played, laughed, and learned together as they prepared for the exciting start of the school year.

Here are highlights from the journey.

 Personalization is Not Just For Kids

“Just as we personalize the educational experience for students, we personalize the experience for teachers,” says Dan Barber, Head of Teacher Satisfaction.

Dan and his team worked hard to make sure teachers got the most out of their time together. They reached out to teachers beforehand to ask for their input on what kinds of skills and content they were interested in learning. They made sure the experience built on teacher strengths and helped them address any weaknesses.

“Each educator has the option to choose what they want and need to learn. This is authentic and reflective of the education we give our kids,” says Dan.

Start With Why

The first few days teachers spent together were all about answering the question, “Why are we here?” Because our teachers come from a variety of educational backgrounds and school experiences, we wanted to give them a forum to share why they chose to come teach at AltSchool.  

“One of the things we keep hearing from teachers is how incredible it is to meet and work with other educators from such diverse teaching backgrounds,” says Alison Lee, Head of Educator Recruiting.

In a design session, teachers explored each others’ perspectives on classroom values and culture. Teachers mentioned the need for “a culture of play,” “open exploration,” and “real-world experiences.”

You can see some of their other ideas on post-its below.


We also spent time explaining the origin of AltSchool, the research behind the new teaching tools we created, and how engineers and designers work with teachers to address real-world needs in the classroom.

We shared all the ways AltSchool supports teachers in their craft, including giving teachers ample time for collaboration and empowering teachers with meaningful data on student progress. We also discussed the AltSchool Learning Objectives, the global set of standards that form the foundation for how each student grows and develops over time.

Learn from Each Other

What teachers appreciated most during our time together was learning from each other. We asked them to lead their own workshops and share best practices from their fields of expertise.

“It felt great to see the wheels turning in my colleagues’ heads as they began to think of how they could use the techniques and ideas we presented. I feel so lucky to be amongst such a vibrant, knowledgeable and enthusiastic really is like a dream come true,” says one of our teachers. who co-led a workshop on social and emotional learning.

Some of the other teacher-led workshops included:

  • Making and Tinkering: How to design hands-on learning activities with electronics, 3-D printing, and laser cutting.

  • Universal Design for Learning: How to use UDL guidelines to design curriculum that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.  

  • Best Practices in Teaching Elementary Math: How to teach rigorous mathematics using an emergent curriculum.

  • Interdisciplinary Instruction: How to teach “anything within anything” in a rigorous setting.

  • Best Practices in Team Teaching: How to build upon prior teaching experiences to enhance educator collaboration.

As the school year approaches, we will continue to give teachers ample opportunities to continue sharing and learning from each other, as well as keep our community abreast of the ways teachers continuously improve the art and science of educating.

"I’ve never been part of an organization that trusts teachers so much and holds them to such a high level.  It makes me want to work harder, learn more, and push my thinking to even broader levels,” says Paul France, a new teacher at AltSchool Fort Mason, on his personal blog.

Given that our teachers are already of the highest caliber, we are humbled to hear such feedback. This is why we’re here - to help teachers and students be their absolute best.

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Topics: AltSchool Innovation

Educators as 21st Century Knowledge Workers

Posted by Dan Barber

Aug 12, 2014 1:56:00 PM

Educating children to actualize their full potential is one of the highest professional callings in our society. We do all we can to honor and empower teachers, especially those who work to continuously improve their craft.  

As I heard from new teacher, Emma Simmons, "It’s refreshing to be treated like a professional." 

We know that teachers work incredibly hard to help children succeed, despite not always having the tools or working environment that other professionals take for granted.

I recently came across an article by Linda Darling-Hammond that brings to light just how challenging being a teacher can be these days. She discusses the results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which states that “American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world.”

The research finds that teachers:

  • receive less useful feedback than educators in other countries,
  • get less helpful professional development, and
  • have less time to collaborate to improve their work.

At AltSchool, we create a 21st century working environment where teachers are valued and supported in their craft. Just like we respect our students as individuals, we respect our teachers.

Here are some of the ways we do that.

Create A Collaborative Environment: In our micro-schools, co-teaching is the norm. On average, our educator teams consist of four individuals -- often at different stages in their careers -- with two teachers in each classroom together throughout the day. The curriculum, assessment strategies, and best practices they develop in their classrooms are instantly shared across AltSchool’s network, allowing teachers in other micro-schools to learn from each other. Through new collaborative teaching tools, we give exemplary educators the leverage to impact massive numbers of students at scale. Additionally, less experienced teachers get constant support in the classroom and grow over time through the positive examples of peers and mentors.

TeacherPDDanPostProvide High-Quality Feedback: Transparency and effective communication are keys to successful teaching at AltSchool. Our teachers regularly give and receive reflection and feedback to and from each other. They are not only accountable to their teams, but also to the students, families and communities they serve.

Empower Teachers with Meaningful Data: Our teachers are modern knowledge workers who work with data to continuously iterate and improve the educational experience. They use technology to streamline almost every data-driven process, from taking attendance to reviewing student progress, and course-correct on a daily basis. They also work in tandem with engineers to create new tools for addressing needs in the classroom.  

Value Teaching and Teacher Learning: We believe that teaching should be a fantastically enriching, impactful, and satisfying job that is compensated in a way that reflects the level of expertise and skills educators possess. Besides reimagining the fundamental aspects of a teacher’s job, we are changing what compensation and growth look like. We provide a clear and continuous career path with a commitment to upward mobility that gives teachers the opportunity to earn six figures. They also have flexibility regarding when they can take off and receive equity -- much like many of the perks non-teachers enjoy at modern companies such as Google and Facebook.

Moreover, we support ambitious educators to continue their time in the classroom. Experienced AltSchool teachers are encouraged to become lead educators at new micro-schools and build innovative curricular resources for hundreds of students within the network.

As we enter into our second year and expand our teaching team from 5 to 24 educators, we will continue to document and evaluate the experiences of our educators in this model.

So far, we have heard lots of positive sentiment from our teachers. In a recent survey we conducted with teachers, 100% “strongly agree that they have learned new skills while at AltSchool."

One teacher remarked, “I absolutely love working at AltSchool and feel like it has truly changed my life.”

It is through a deliberate revamp that we hope to bring both more great professionals into the teaching world, and to maximize teacher effectiveness and satisfaction across our micro-school network. We respect our educators as professionals, just as our teachers respect children as learners.

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Topics: AltSchool Innovation

Summer Camp Highlights from Educators and Engineers

Posted by Sandy Naing

Aug 7, 2014 12:54:00 PM

What’s it like to create an imaginative experience for children to think and play like designers?

Our educators and engineers had a ton of fun guiding students in creating sensational pieces of (pretend) candy during the inaugural summer camp program, “Wonky Willard’s Candy Factory.”

The summer camp teaching team created opportunities for students to explore tastes, smells, and textures. They helped students develop working prototypes with hands-on and digital tools, like CubeTeam and 3-D printing. They also aided students in video editing and production to create commercials of their creations. 


In addition, the camp was a great way for new educators to work alongside existing teachers and AltSchool engineers.  

Here’s what Kristin Uhlemeyer, a K-1 teacher, had to say about the experience:

“One of the best ways to get to know your teaching team is to actually teach together!  Summer camp was perfect for team building.  I also loved that students, new and old, collaborated over the summer. I think that, for the kids, having the chance to experiment with new technology, try creative ideas, and iterate on designs has become synonymous with AltSchool.”

Another engineer shared this with us:

“The summer camp gave me a chance to step out of my everyday role as an engineer to teach elementary school students about 3-D printing and computer-aided design. It was wonderful to influence so many young minds, get wrapped up in their energy, and watch them transform ideas into things.”

And, lastly, Jay Ho, mechanical engineer, said:

"I was thrilled to teach kids about what I do as a designer and builder, but I also experienced first-hand how the products we work on are used by our teachers and students. As we filmed our commercial to advertise the "candy" created, I laughed to the point of collapsing the kids."

Below are more pictures from the camp:







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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Dogpatch Classroom, Summer