Rethinking What’s “Already Good”

These Tennessee educators attended a conference full of education thought leaders. The insights they learned will change their classrooms forever.

By Brennan Trent & Bonnie Grindstaff

Reflections from the 2019 Deeper Learning Conference.

Editor’s note: Brennan Trent, a math teacher, and Bonnie Grindstaff, a special education teacher, work at XQ School Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tenn. The pair attended the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego. These are their insights.


For the past four years, the state of Tennessee has deemed my math teaching abilities the “highest level of effectiveness,” based on my students’ test scores. Yet, that is not enough for me or my students. I want them to graduate ready to take on our ever-evolving modern world. When I was selected to attend the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego, I felt like I had won the lottery. My school is rethinking high school, and I couldn’t wait to gain inspiration on how to revamp my math classroom!

Inflatable Mars Habitat

In this session, I played the role of a student from start to finish. My group designed and constructed an inflatable Mars habitat. Even as an adult, I was engaged during the entire process and felt successful when my group’s dimensions and design worked. I want my students to be that engaged and experience that pride!

Functions Scavenger Hunt

As soon as I got back to Tennessee, I facilitated a Functions Photo Scavenger Hunt with my students. I was shown this activity in one of my favorite sessions, led by Brooke Tobia, a math teacher at Calavera Hills Middle School in Carlsbad, Calif., and Amy Brownlee, a math teacher at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. I organized students into groups, gave them list of vocabulary words relating to functions, and let them find examples of those words throughout the school. They gave formal presentations to the class about their findings. I was so impressed with their creativity!

An App to Make Planning a Breeze

Jeff McClellan, founder and CEO of StartSOLE, introduced me to his amazing app. SOLE stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment. It features student-led, inquiry-based lessons for all subjects. One lesson allows the teacher to set a time limit for the entire SOLE, provides an essential question, requires student research and presentations, and includes rubrics for the student presentations. It even syncs to the projector! I suggest downloading it immediately!

It’s Okay To Use Direct Instruction

Before I attended Deeper Learning, I was under the impression that math curriculum should be 100 percent project-based. After collaborating with other secondary math teachers at the conference, I discovered they still use direct instruction in moderation. I have decided my goal for next year’s curriculum is 60 percent project-based and 40 percent direct instruction. It will be my first year full of PBL, and I am so excited!


Project-Based Learning in the Special Ed Classroom

As a special educator, up until this point I felt like I did a decent job including all students, individualizing for each of my students, and including them to the highest extent possible in their classes. However, at the Deeper Learning Conference I witnessed what can be accomplished when students’ classrooms encompass real-life experiences and challenges. What truly amazed me is the extent to which these skills can be acquired through project-based learning! And how much more “real-life” can you get when your strengths are identified and utilized for a task that will ultimately impact not just the individual or group ? but the whole community. I can only imagine the discussions and brainstorming that went into one particular project, a beautifully designed flower box that was a part of a school’s playground landscape. The school was filled with artwork created by students. Their works were the classroom focal points. The halls displayed their skills, talents, and knowledge. The environment was theirs. This take-away is hard to put into words, but can easily be seen in a few of the photos I captured.

The Power of Experiencing Success

I experienced first-hand the teaching style and methods of the music teacher at High Tech High Middle School. He asks himself, “What is the quickest way I can get the students to love what they are doing? The rest will come, but they need to experience some form of success first.” Our task was to select an instrument and in a very short amount of time (I’m talking 20 minutes), with minimal explanation, teach ourselves to play a song from sheet music! Not only did it work, but there was a sense of pride when I pushed through my fear and uncertainty. The desire to learn more, do more, and understand the ins and outs of a banjo was incredible. Within a matter of minutes, I was able to play an easily recognizable song (“Happy Birthday”) and that success made me want to learn more! I will forever remember this experience, share it in teacher-coaching sessions, and implement the take-away as we move forward with PBL in our high school.

A Most Powerful Question

One session I attended at the conference was on professional development. We were asked a question: “What is a skill you learned in the last six months, and how did you learn it?” The responses drove home the fact that our professional development must be updated. I was reminded by Brennan that I had recently updated my red-brick fireplace. Having zero experience I had to start from scratch. I researched styles until I found the one I wanted. I compared materials for certain whitewash effects. I read the dos and dont’s. Tips and tricks. I watched video demonstrations and made lists of what they did and how. I spoke to employees at local stores who were familiar with the topic. And finally, there was implementation. At the session, when we came back together and shared, other people’s answers mirrored my own experience. “Sit in front of a large screen and read from PowerPoints” was never mentioned. I am excited to be a part of professional development that reflects how adults and students alike learn and apply knowledge in 2019. “Rethink Professional Development” is a hot topic for me as I return back to my school and classroom.