AASA, Art, and Thinking Historically About

Last week, the Thinking Nation team exhibited and presented at AASA’s National Conference on Education in San Diego, CA. It was a busy and well attended conference and so nice for the Thinking Nation team to engage with school and district leaders from around the country. Spenser, Liz, and Valentina presented on Valentine’s Day about our AI initiatives and Zach presented the next day about how we can better align social studies departments at districts large and small. To read more about our sessions, check out the press release that went out before the conference.

The Thinking Nation Crew!
Spenser, Valerie, Liz, and Johanna representing Disciplinary Thinking Skills

For me, the best part of the conference was just hanging out with our team. Being a remote-working team, opportunities for us all to hang out in person are not lost on me. I had so much fun catching up with each person at our booth or offsite when we had meals together. I’m really so fortunate to work with the people I do, and last week’s time together only confirmed that.

Student Art Contest

As a reminder, our Student Art Contest is alive and well! As a reminder, We teamed up with the National Alliance for Charter Schools again this year to host a nationwide student art contest for middle and high school students. (Check out last year’s!)  This year’s National Charter School Conference will be in Boston, MA from June 30-July 3. Since the conference leads right into Independence Day in one of the nation’s most revolutionary cities, we decided to build our theme around the future of American democracy. Students can create a creative work of art that addresses the prompt: What does the future of American Democracy look like?

Submissions for this Student Art Contest for Democracy will be accepted until March 15th and the top 20 will be featured at the National Charter Schools Conference! The top 2 will even win cash prizes! For full details on the contest, check out the contest flyer. We can’t wait to see what students come up with!

The Podcast: Thinking Historically About

Lastly, since I didn’t get around to sending anything out last week, I want to make sure I let everyone know about last week’s podcast episode with Dr. Larry Paska, Executive Director of the National Council for Social Studies. I’m excited to have a more extensive conversation with Larry during Civic Learning Week, but if you are looking for a sneak peak of our conversation, check out the episode. If you want to attend the CLW webinar, sign up here!

This week’s episode features Andrea Foggy-Paxton, who I regrettably didn’t know about until we serendipitously sat next to each other at the Reagan Institute’s roundtable a couple of weeks ago. Andrea is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Education Leaders of Color and Founder of Social Studies Accelerator. She also sits on the iCivics and Los Angeles County Board of Education boards.  I am so inspired by Andrea’s work in Social Studies that I had to have her on the podcast. I hope you all enjoy her insights and benefit from her wisdom in the episode!

Promoting Freedom and Democracy At Home and Abroad – Our Time at the Reagan Library

Quick Podcast Update

As I mentioned last week, we are releasing a new podcast episode every week leading up to Civic Learning Week (March 11-15). Today’s release is an interview with Jessica Ellison, the executive director of the National Council for History Education. Please listen!

Also, I was kindly invited by Dr. Almitra Berry to join her on her podcast, “Educational Emancipation Equity” recently. You can listen to our conversation here. As I tell her, we want to empower students and firmly believe that equipping them to think historically can do just that.

Promoting Freedom and Democracy

In another great opportunity to talk about the importance of social studies education as a means to preserve and protect our constitutional democracy, I facilitated a roundtable discussion at the Reagan Library on Tuesday, February 6 as a part of the celebration of President Reagan’s 113th birthday. 

Former Polish President, Lech Walesa, giving his address.

The public portion of the event began with a speech from former President of Poland and distinguished Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Walesa. He had admirable reflections on the state of democracy and how we can sustain it, reminding us in the crowd: “First, we have to focus on the values that guide us—then we can focus on the laws and the economy.” So often, we miss the forest for the trees. His broad view was a good reminder.

After the address and public ceremony, a group of us joined together for the roundtable, “Promoting Freedom and Democracy at Home and Abroad.” The first roundtable was led by Consuelo Amat, SNF Agora Institute Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She led us in a discussion of lessons from abroad about fortying democracy. Her insights to how people resist repressive regimes was incredibly illuminating and I wish her portion was longer!

I was fortunate to lead and facilitate the 2nd half of the roundtable around the topic, “Nurturing Civic Dispositions to Uphold Democratic Institutions and Integrity.” As a premise, I reinforced my case that a good history education is a civic education and called to attention the research findings of our white paper published in Education Week back in November. I then facilitated a discussion on how social studies educators can be at the forefront of this work.

I’m privileged that Ben Katcher, one of my favorite history teachers, was able to join for this discussion. Ben teaches at Valor Academy High School, a partner school of Thinking Nation’s. His practical insights brought the theory to life for those in the room without classroom experience. 

In an increasingly polarized country where more and more citizens are advocating for more authoritarianism, and by default, less democracy, conversations like this are vital for creating action and sustaining our democracy. I’m grateful to Dr. Janet Tran at the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity for prioritizing this space and dialogue.

Spenser, Liz, and Zach hanging out on Air Force One before the roundtable began.

Another new Board Member

Last thing! Each week I want to highlight another new board member (last week’s being Dr. Marco Clark. This week, let’s welcome Paolo DeMaria!

Mr. DeMaria is president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Prior to this role, he was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Ohio. He focused on literacy outcomes, teacher excellence and leadership, career-technical education, business-education partnerships, and equity in Ohio’s education system. He previously directed the state’s Office of Budget and Management and was chief policy advisor to former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and executive vice chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education. He also spent six years as principal consultant for Education First Consulting. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and economics from Furman University and a Master of Public Administration in public administration leadership and financial management from the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University.

To hear more about the historical thinking skill DeMaria most resonates with, watch the video interview with Tiana Day below.

January 2024 Organization Highlights

Today, I want to take some time to highlight some great things going on at Thinking Nation this month. But first, an inside scoop:

A Press Release – Thinking Nation’s Board of Directors

On Monday (1/29), you will see the publication of our first press release. It will highlight the doubling of Thinking Nation’s board of directors. As many of you know, the board of directors of a nonprofit organization is critical to driving growth and sustainability, and we are so fortunate to have such a wealth of knowledge and diversity of expertise on our board in order to help us fulfill our mission to cultivate thinking citizens. At any point, you can head over to our website to learn more about Thinking Nation’s board of directors, but in this space, I am going to highlight one of our board members in each post for the next few weeks.

First up, our resident historian. Dr. Catherine O’Donnell joined our board back in October 2023 and brings such a robust track record of centering historical thinking in her scholarship. We are grateful for her grounding perspective as we seek to shift the paradigm of social studies education toward a specifically discipline-driven, rather than content-focused approach. A bit more about Catherine: 

Professor O’Donnell, currently a distinguished faculty member at Arizona State University, brings a wealth of expertise in history and administration to her role as board member. She has authored several scholarly books and articles, including Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Cornell University Press, 2018), which received the Distinguished Book Award by the Conference on the History of Women Religious and the Biography Prize from the Catholic Press Association. She is also a member of the Board of the Arizona Council of History Educators. Dr. O’Donnell received a Bachelor of Arts inSpanish and American Studies from Amherst College, a Master of Arts in history from the University of Michigan, and Doctor of Philosophy degree in history from the University of Michigan.

Also, here is a brief interview with Dr. O’Donnell, to get to know her better:

Dr. O’Donnell shares a little bit about what drew her to Thinking Nation

A Day with Indiana Teachers

Moving onto more Thinking Nation happenings, January has been quite the busy month for us. One particular event that I’d like to highlight here is a statewide virtual professional development we hosted for teachers across Indiana. The goal of our time together was to spend time understanding and practicing the ways that we can teach history in order to better align our classrooms across the 6 grade levels of secondary social studies education. It was entitled: “Building Alignment Across Social Studies: Creating a More Unified Social Studies Approach.”

Engaging with a couple dozen Indiana educators for a day and hearing how they could take some of the practices gleaned from the session back to their own schools in order to create robustly aligned social studies departments was definitely a thrill. We are incredibly thankful to Keep Indiana Learning for helping to organize the event. Indiana continues to pave the way in how we can see education as a civic endeavor and it was a joy to be a part in facilitating that goal for educators who care deeply for the students they serve.

I’m excited to share more on the many great events and announcements we have for the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll just say “stay tuned!”

The National Council for Social Studies: A Recap

This has been a busy season of travel for the Thinking Nation team, but the travel ended on a high note with the National Council for Social Studies in Nashville, TN. With almost 5,000 people in attendance, it is by far the largest gathering of social studies educators each year. The weekend was filled with vibrancy, collaboration, and especially new friendships. It really is such a treat to be a part of.

Just an excited History nerd about to present.

This year, I was fortunate to present a power session, entitled “Cultivating Historians, not History Enthusiasts: Maintaining Relevance in Education’s Future.” I’ve written in the past on this distinction, but it was especially exciting to dive deeper into the ramifications of making this distinction among fellow social studies educators. In the session, I addressed why our primary goal should be to cultivate historical thinkers in our classrooms in order to best empower our students as both citizens and future participants in the workforce. Moreover, historical thinking can be a unifier in our discipline. Often, we silo ourselves based on the content we teach (World History, U.S. Government, Ethnic Studies, etc.), which makes it hard for us to collaborate and vertically align across our discipline. As I wrote in Education Week back in May:

We can bring legitimacy back to what we do. Focusing on the discipline rather than the content allows us to rise above the culture wars, redeem ourselves as teachers of literacy so that we can properly collaborate with other content areas, and, most importantly, empower our students with the skills and dispositions to reinvigorate a visibly injured democracy.

“History Teachers Deserve Respect,” Education Week, May 15, 2023.

Cultivating historians in our classrooms is essential if we want to be seen as a legitimate discipline in such a future-focused education atmosphere.

Spenser, Annie, and Me (Zach) hanging out at our booth before the rush of attendees!

But onto the rest of the conference. Spenser (Our COO), Annie (Our Director of Curriculum), and myself had such a fun (and busy) time in the exhibit hall talking to educators from around the country. We firmly believe that our resources, assessments, and professional development can help facilitate a paradigm shift in classrooms and schools, and we were so excited to share more about that with curious educators.

The motivational Rachel Humphries from the Bill of Rights Institute.

We also got to meet or reconnect with such inspiring educators throughout the country. It was great to finally meet two prominent Instagram history educators (Of course our very own Annie Jenson is @apushladyboss): Dan Lewer (of @History_4_Humans) and Cate Baumgarten (of @thegreatcatehistory). Cate even saved my own presentation by lending me her clicker! Thank you Cate!

Few scholars have personally influenced me as much as Sam Wineburg. What a treat to chat with him for a bit!

I also finally met and enjoyed a conversation with Karalee Nakatsuka, or better known as @historyfrog (GLI’s CA Teacher of the Year!) She has consistently been doing such great work pushing boundaries in using edtech in her history classroom. You’re a rockstar, Karalee! It was great to connect with folks from the Bill of Rights Institute, OER Project, Sam Wineburg of SHEG (Now Digital Literacy Group), and Sarah Jencks who does incredible work in the museum space (civicmuseums.org). The list could go on! NCSS continues to be such a fruitful and rejuvenating conference and we feel so fortunate to be a part of such a dedicated education community.

The Front of President Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

Lastly, it was a treat to see some of Nashville’s rich history. We walked around historic broadway where the music could not be contained to the bars they originated from. The streets were flowing with talented music. We got to see Tennessee’s State Capital (where President James Polk is buried), and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. But perhaps most inspiring was the several Civil Rights Movement markers throughout the city. Walking to Woolworth’s where the first lunch counter sit-ins took place and stumbling upon a parking lot where the First Baptist Church once stood and used as an organizing location for the sit-ins were both inspiring. And no surprise, spending time at the National Museum of African American Music was so enriching and fun! I’ll definitely need to head back to Music City and explore more! Who will we see next year at the National Council for Social Studies conference in Boston??

The site of Woolworth’s, where the first lunch counter sit-ins took place.

ExcelinEd and a Thanksgiving Reflection

Last week, Thinking Nation’s executive team headed to Atlanta, GA for the 15th Annual National Summit on Education hosted by ExcelinEd. Each year at ExcelinEd, policy makers, nonprofits, and other education organizations get together to talk to and learn from each other on how we can build an education system that prioritizes students over systems. I left feeling both inspired and challenged in and I am looking forward to integrating some of the takeaways into our own work at Thinking Nation. Today, I’d like to highlight two of the keynote addresses from the conference that equally inspired and challenged me.

Jonathan Haidt has been inspiring me with his research and writing for the better part of the last decade. So, as you can imagine, when I learned that he would be at the conference, I was excited for what he would focus on. In the past few years, his book The Righteous Mind gave me a concrete way to understand how people come to different political views. His research is very much aligned to the historian’s chief job: to understand people from a time and place not like our own. In 2018, he and Greg Lukianoff wrote The Coddling of the American Mind. Once again, I was taken by their findings. This time, he explored “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas” (chiefly at universities) “Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” I encourage all of us who work in education to read it.

As you can tell, I’m great with selfies…

For the past couple of years, Haidt has built off that research and explored the specific impact of social media on our younger generations. Thus, in his talk for us, he introduced some of his new findings that will be in her newest book, The Anxious Generation, coming out in Spring 2024. As he’s written elsewhere, he pointed out that social media is producing much more harm than good, especially for younger users, and especially for younger female users. Second, he called on the audience, many of which have the power to introduce corresponding legislation in their states, to “get phones out of school now.” His ExcelinEd presentation provided compelling findings that demonstrate the negative impact of screens in school. Both he, and the next speaker I’ll highlight, Arthur Brooks, noted that at the schools that they teach at (NYU and Harvard Business School, respectively) do not allow devices in their classrooms. If these elite institutions recognize the need for analog classrooms, we all must consider the ramifications of our own technological choices in the classroom.

Of course, as an organization, we have built an entire web-based platform for teacher and student use. This complicates things. At Thinking Nation, we recognize just how much technology can help us shift the paradigm of social studies education. Still, we know that not all classrooms operate the same. This is why all of our resources are available to our teachers both to assign directly on our platform, or to download as PDFs for student use. Technology can expedite growth but we also must be realistic about the times that it is a growth inhibitor.

The second speaker I’ll highlight here is Arthur Brooks. Brooks has become a mainstay in my weekly reading over at The Atlantic with his Thursday “happiness” column: How to Build a Life. Not to be confused with that overly-optimistic friend we all have that secretly makes us want to throw up, Brooks’ columns and research feels both authentic and practical. 

Brooks’ talk challenged us at ExcelinEd to think about how we can teach happiness to our students and he gave us very practical approaches to do so. First, he highlighted that happiness is comprised of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. 

Arthur Brooks speaking with former congressman, Eric Cantor

While each of these three things are important on their own, it is when they work in concert with each other that we experience happiness. He continued to give us at ExcelinEd practical outlines and activities to promote self-awareness and happiness, many of which can be done with students. But it was his two questions he left for us to answer that stuck with me the most. He said that the mere ability to answer the following two questions are the best indicator to whether you have found meaning in your life. One’s answer to those questions doesn’t matter as much as the sheer ability to answer them. The questions?

  1. Why am I alive?
  2. For what would I be willing to die, today?

Brooks continued to challenge us, but this is a good spot to transition to the other topic of today’s blog: Thanksgiving. Before I do though, whenever I travel for Thinking Nation, I like to prioritize at least one historical landmark. So, thank you ExcelinEd, for giving me the ability to see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church. MLK was a model for us of how to best be an American and it was special to visit those sites.

MLK’s Birth home

The original Ebenezer Baptist Church


Thanksgiving is a special holiday filled with historical tension. While it is worth exploring the tensions of the ethnic roots of some of the holiday traditions, today (as I’ve done in the past), I’d like for us to merely consider the purpose of the day: to give thanks. At the heart of gratitude is humility. We cannot be thankful for anyone or anything without acknowledging that others help us. A humble person gives thanks. 

History, with its core purpose to be the understanding of people and places not like our own, is a discipline rooted in humility. As I wrote in the blog linked above:

“With no urgent need to use the past for present benefits, historians can humbly try to understand the past rather than co-opting it for a specific purpose or use. This intellectual humility can lead to an intellectual gratitude.”

This intellectual gratitude is embedded throughout our resources. We challenge students to understand diverse perspectives, identify historical significance, and take on historical empathy. These tools, inherent to our discipline, is why we believe that our curriculum, assessments, and professional development can support teachers in cultivating thinking citizens.

Redefining Ready – College, Career, and Life

Last week, our Chief Partnership Officer, Liz Connolly, and myself, flew out to Mansfield, Texas. We witnessed the great work being done at Mansfield ISD under the leadership of Superintendent, Dr. Kimberly Cantu. This visit was part of our partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the work of their Redefining Ready! Cohort. The multi-day summit was filled with brilliant ideas, great collaboration, and of course, some great Texas BBQ thanks to Mansfield’s own students at Ben Barber Innovation Academy’s Savvy’s Bistro.

Much of our time together was spent visiting different Mansfield ISD schools and witnessing such rich education innovation. From the programs to the classroom layouts to the lesson plans themselves, it was such a special experience to witness such deep learning. I was so impressed with all of the teachers and students I interacted with.

In particular, though, this cohort got together as we rethink how we “redefine ready” for our schools. Much in the same way that Thinking Nation wants to shift the paradigm of social studies education and redefine how we measure success in the discipline, this group of superintendents is seeking to redefine how we measure success as districts, and hopefully, as a nation. The three categories where we worked together as a group to redefine readiness were college, career, and life. Of course, there is great overlap in each of these categories. But, to think of each of those domains separately was a great exercise in thinking through our own priorities for K-12 education.

Ellen Gallinsky leading one of the breakout sessions on “Life Readiness.”

In one of the breakout sessions, I joined the Life Readiness group. I wanted to hear the research and insights that came from Ellen Gallinsky, the executive director of Mind in the Making. Her 2010 book of the same title explores seven life skills that she’s identified as essential for children to grow into flourishing adults. Her next book, which comes out in the spring, continues this research and explores the teen years. 

Before her presentation, I had time to talk with her about some of the intersections between our work. Specifically, our historical thinking skills that I addressed last week and her work in life readiness. While I often see the connection between historical thinking and life readiness, Mrs. Gallinsky’s quick ability to see the connection was encouraging. As I say often, historical thinking is a life skill. If more of us applied historical thinking to more parts of our life, society would be grateful. It’s why our vision is that “all students will mature into thinking citizens, equipped with the essential skills to participate in a robust democracy.”

As we move forward with our partnership with the Redefining Ready! Cohort, I’m excited to think alongside such brilliant superintendents who are striving to shift the paradigm of education more largely. We will continue to advocate for a needed paradigm shift in social studies. Because we know that when students are empowered to think historically they are more college, career, and life ready. Thank you to AASA and Mansfield ISD for having us!

Building Thinking (Social Studies) Classrooms

 Keep Indiana Learning and Building Thinking Classrooms

The last two days of June some of the Thinking Nation team was able to join hundreds of educators from around the country in Franklin, IN for the Building Thinking Classrooms Conference hosted by Keep Indiana Learning. This was a great conference to end a hectic two months of travel for the team.

Dr. Peter Liljedahl, Professor of Mathematics Education at Simon Fraser University, published Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics in 2020, quickly garnering recognition for his research. As the title suggests, Dr. Liljedahl presents new and innovative strategies and mindsets that teachers can incorporate into their classrooms to make them thinking classrooms. While his work specifies the math classroom, there is so much that social studies teachers can glean from his book. 

I was fortunate to be able to present at the conference, taking a deeper look into how some of the strategies could be realized in social studies classrooms. As our own organization’s name implies, we believe it is essential to build thinking classrooms. In fact, my session was simply titled: Building Thinking (Social Studies) Classrooms. 

I specifically wanted to explore the intersection of Liljedahl’s work and the role of assessment in social studies classrooms. As I’ve often written about, if we truly want to shift the paradigm of history education, we must rethink how we measure success in the classroom. In Building Thinking Classrooms, Liljedahl rightfully reminds us that “we evaluate what we value” (BTC Practice 12). I took the time to challenge the room to think about what types of messages we send when all we evaluate in social studies is content acquisition. As I’ve noted before, it is not our job to create walking encyclopedias, but thinking citizens.

Thinking Nation really focuses on this work through our formative assessments on disciplinary thinking and our summative assessments, which we call Curated Research Papers (more on that term perhaps next week!) If we as teachers take backwards planning seriously and backward plan from assessments on thinking rather than solely content knowledge, we demonstrate to our students that deep thought is what is valued most by us. This is essential if we truly want to shift the paradigm of social studies education.

Juneteenth at the National Charter Schools Conference

June was a busy travel month for Thinking Nation. On any given day, a Thinking Nation team member could have been in any of the three time zones across the continental U.S. While July has its own business, its lack of travel allows us to reflect a little on June. 

Our last blog featured Tiana Day’s experience at the Black Minds Matter Summit in Washington DC. The very next weekend, she and other Thinking Nation team members were in Austin, Texas for the National Charter Schools Conference. NCSC is the largest gathering of charter schools and their stakeholders each year, and it is always an exciting thing to be a part of.

This year, the National Alliance for Charter Schools reached out to Thinking Nation to help coordinate a Juneteenth celebration, given that the conference fell on the national holiday. Excitedly, we brainstormed several ways to commemorate and celebrate this profound holiday of freedom. In past years on Juneteenth, our blog addressed why this newest national holiday must be seen as America’s holiday and not merely a celebration for Black Americans. We also took a dive into Annette Gordon-Reed’s moving memoir-meets-monograph, On Juneteenth. Today’s reflective post covers how we were able to celebrate Juneteenth in Austin!

The top 3 student art pieces and the judges at the pop up exhibit in Austin, TX.

Tiana orchestrated a nationwide student art competition, which she named “Liberation in the Lens of Artivism.” Thinking Nation provided a historical analysis activity to go with the contest, and our friends at the National Liberty Museum provided students with an artwork analysis activity. The top student submissions were featured at the National Charter Schools Conference, and the National Alliance for Charter Schools generously sponsored the cash prizes for the top three students in the contest.

Our first and third place winners came from Mastery East Camden Middle School in Camden, NJ. East Camden is a part of the Mastery Schools network, with schools in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. Our 2nd place winner came from Stella High Charter Academy in Los Angeles, CA. SHCA is a part of Bright Star Schools. All of the student art work was inspiring. The National Alliance for Charter Schools really showcased the student work in the pop up exhibit.

One of the components of Black Minds Matter’s exhibit “We are Self-Determined.”

We were also able to incorporate the expertise of some of our new friends into building out a pop up exhibit for the attendees of NCSC. Black Minds Matter provided a compelling history of education freedom for Black communities throughout American history, demonstrating a link between the freedom from slavery recognized in Juneteenth to the freedom to receive an education shown in the ingenuity of Black communities both past and present. The Black Minds Matter exhibit contained inspiring videos of movers and shakers showcasing the inspiring work of Black school founders since the 19th century.

Go support the National Juneteenth Museum!

Lastly, we were able to highlight the work of the forthcoming National Juneteenth Museum, which is set to open to the public in 2025 in Fort Worth, TX. NJM provided attendees with an origin story of the holiday, as well as its future plans to commemorate it as a museum. I am so excited to go to the museum when it opens!

It was truly an honor to work with such talented people to make the exhibit a reality for conference attendees. Just to reemphasize the collaborative nature of this project, I want to end with thanking all of the hands that went into what attendees engaged with. The Juneteenth exhibit would never have happened if it weren’t for the generosity of the National Alliance for Charter Schools and their trust in Thinking Nation for organizing the exhibit.

The art contest would have never got off the ground if it weren’t for Tiana, her own nonprofit, Youth Advocates for Change, and the dedicated artists that judged the contest. The students could not have engaged with the art effectively if it wasn’t for the scaffolds created by the National Liberty Museum. The holiday could not have been contextualized without the National Juneteenth Museum. Lastly, if it weren’t for Black Minds Matter, attendees would not have been able to see the direct connection of Juneteenth to education freedom, the premise that guides charter schools in their daily work. We were so grateful to be a part of this! Till Boston in 2024!

The rest of the winners for the student art contest.

Taking Inspiration from the National Black Minds Matter Summit

In this post, our Community Outreach Manager, Tiana Day, reflects on her time last week at the National Black Minds Matter Summit in Washington, DC.

Monica Hall of T.H.R.I.V.E Christian Academy with Tiana Day.

Thinking Nation was a proud sponsor of the 2023 National Black Minds Matter Summit. The conference brought together compelling Black school founders, politicians, allies, and advocates from across the country to discuss how to better support Black students in education.

Elizabeth Connolly (Chief Partnership Officer) and I traveled to Washington D.C. to support our partners at Black Minds Matter and attend this conference.

“Black Minds Matter is a national movement to celebrate Black minds, support excellence, and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students.” -BMM Site

During this three-day conference, we listened to inspiring panelists share their success journeys, ups and downs, and the advice they have gained from working in the education space.

One of the first presentations was conducted by students attending Legends Charter School, based just outside the nation’s capital in Lanham, MD. Legends School, founded by Shomari and Atasha James, focuses on integrating financial literacy courses into their curriculum. The 7th-grade students who attended the conference presented a stock market analysis. It was incredible to see such young people speak confidently about investing and closing the wealth gaps in historically marginalized communities. I personally learned a thing or two from these students! I also learned that school founders can take innovative approaches to education to tackle systemic issues during students’ K-12 years.

One of the most compelling speakers we heard from was Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship Public Charter Schools. Friendship Schools (PK3-12) is a leading group of 15 physical charter schools in the Washington D.C. area that started with two locations in 1998. Brantley believes that the representation of teachers in the classroom has contributed to the success of her students. Her schools focus on ensuring teachers reflect the diverse populations of the students they serve. Friendship Schools also value accessibility, offering an online platform for students in grades K-8 living in the Washington D.C. area. Brantley celebrated their 25th-year anniversary and achievements, boasting a 95% graduation rate with 100% of students who have attended Friendship Schools being accepted into 4-year colleges and universities.

As I reflect on my own educational journey and why I love working with Thinking Nation, I think about the lack of representation I faced as a Black student during my K-12 experience. Today, my passion lies in creating a safe space for students to feel supported by a community where they feel they belong. When students feel a sense of belonging, they feel celebrated, and their confidence often translates into academic achievements. We heard from a politician based in Indiana who shared that at one point, there were only 10 Black male teachers in the entire state serving 1.2 million students. I pondered whether the students who had access to learning from those Black male teachers knew how rare it was to gain that perspective. It truly changed my perspective on the importance of having representation in the classroom as leaders for students to look up to.

We also heard from politicians who shared with the participants how to get in contact with their state legislators and build genuine relationships. One politician shared that for them, it only takes one impactful story to inspire action, and hearing from a quality parent, student, or community member has a greater impact than receiving thousands of template-filled emails. Another politician shared that they prefer scheduling coffee meetings during breaks or between sessions with community members and enjoying attending community events. Each shared a different perspective on how they like to be communicated with. However, they all agreed on three things: the importance of getting to know representatives at the local, state, and national levels, being informed before approaching a representative, and being respectful and non-confrontational when advocating for what one believes is right.

A unique aspect of this conference was a presentation from Lauren Zelt and Kristin Hoff from Zelt Communications Group, who taught school founders how to use media for visibility. In today’s society, where we are constantly consuming media, leveraging it can be an effective way for school founders to spread the word about their schools. We learned about hosting press conferences and reaching out to broadcast, radio, and news stations to gain coverage. They emphasized the importance of building media relations to expand brand awareness.

Through a partnership with the American National Federation of Schools, founders attending this conference would gain access to free consulting and media training from Zelt Communications. This is often an overlooked aspect when starting a school or any endeavor, really. The media can help amplify our messages, and with proper training and confidence, it can be an essential tool for founders and educators to scale their impact, reach more students and parents, and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

I felt like I left this conference with a wealth of knowledge from others’ lived experiences and perspectives. It was truly inspiring to hear from these leaders who spoke with immense passion about their students. 

My biggest takeaway from the National Black Minds Matter Summit was that Black-founded schools are not monolithic. The majority of these founders aim to use innovative techniques relevant to students to equip them with skills that go beyond academics and prepare them for life. Many schools offer unconventional classes such as computer science engineering or financial literacy to help students align better with their educational and life goals. Attending this conference was an incredible experience for both Elizabeth and me. Simply listening and learning how Thinking Nation can continue to support schools and reach students across the country has been a valuable experience.