Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

close up photography of colored pencils
Photo by Jess Watters on Pexels.com

I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).

So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.

Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA

Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?

While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.

Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.

Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.

This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”

Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.

A growing recognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.

What State and District Leaders Can Do

How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?

There are four moves that policy leaders can make:

  • Redefine literacy
  • Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
  • Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
  • Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments

Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy.
The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA (46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.

It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.

Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.

Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.

Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.

Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.

Anticipated Outcomes

What could we expect as a result of these moves?

Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.

MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.

Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.

Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.

Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.

Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.

References

1 Cambridge Assessment (2013) “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’: A Research Report Commissioned by Cambridge Assessment.” http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf

2 Wexler, N. (2018) “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/
Serino, L. (2017) “What international assessment scores reveal about American education.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-assessment-scores-reveal-about-american-education/

3 Shanahan, T. (2013) “You Want Me to Read What?!” Educational Leadership, ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov13/vol71/num03/You-Want-Me-to-Read-What%C2%A2!.aspx

4 King, K.V. and Zucker, S. (2005) “Curriculum Narrowing – Pearson Assessments.” 18 Aug. 2005, http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf

5 Workman, E. and Jones, S.D. (2016) “ESSA’s Well-Rounded Education.” Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/essas-well-rounded-education/

6 Kaufman, J., Lindsay, T., and V. Darleen Opfer. (2016) “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1613.html
Kaufman, J. & Tsai, T. (2018). “School Supports for Teachers’ Implementation of State Standards Findings from the American School Leader Panel.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2318.html

7 Whitehurst, G.J. (2009) “Don’t forget curriculum.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-forget-curriculum/
Chingos, M. M., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2012) “Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/choosing-blindly-instructional-materials-teacher-effectiveness-and-the-common-core/ Kane, T. J. (2016) “Never judge a book by its cover – use student achievement instead.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-use-student-achievement-instead/ Steiner, D. (2017) “Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go.” StandardsWork, https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf Chiefs for Change (2018) “Statement on the need for high-quality curriculum.” http://chiefsforchange.org/statement-on-the-need-for-high-quality-curricula/

8 International Baccalaureate (2014) “Programme standards and practices.” https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/become-an-ib-school/programme-standards-and-practices-en.pdf

9 Louisiana Department of Education (2018) “Louisiana Essa Innovative Assessment Pilot First To Receive Federal Approval.” https://www.louisianabelieves.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/07/27/louisiana-essa-innovative-assessment-pilot-first-to-receive-federal-approval.

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Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences

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In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning

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How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:

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How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)

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—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.

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—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students

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I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.

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There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:

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This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.

 

I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here:

On Knowledge and Curriculum

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Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

Initiatives I’m Excited About at My School This Year

There’s an unfortunate narrative that sometimes gets pushed in the ed reform community that charter schools are places of innovation and effective practice, while traditional district schools are maintainers of the status quo.

At my school, Jonas Bronck Academy, there’s a few initiatives that I’m excited to help support in this new school year that I think any school, whether charter, district, or private, might learn something from. Check out a short overview of those initiatives in this presentation:

If you’re interested in learning any more about any of these initiatives or would like to share resources, feel free to reach out to me!