EL National Conference 2019 // We are Crew!


Every fall, members of DAA and Detroit Prep’s staff take a trip to EL Education’s National Conference to gather with educators from around the country and to collaborate, learn, and share great instructional ideas to bring back to DAA! This is always one of the most fun, inspirational, and reflective weekends of the year, and this year’s conference was no exception!

This year’s conference was in Atlanta and focused on themes of equity and educating for a better world. The conference kicked off with an inspirational opening ceremony with a keynote speech by John B. King, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, as well as speeches and performances by students at EL schools around the country and in the Atlanta area. 


After the opening ceremony, we broke out into individual Master Classes that were facilitated by teachers and leaders at EL schools around the country and focused on topics of leadership, crew, math, literacy, student work products, and more! This year, I had the privilege of facilitating a Master Class called Creating a Culture of Feedback in the Elementary Classroom, and got to share some of the fabulous resources we’ve created at DAA to help students self-assess, peer assess, and conference with teachers on the multiple drafts of their high quality work. 

I also got to attend a few other sessions that were very thought-provoking and gave me some great ideas to implement in the classroom. One session that was particularly relevant to me was about math discourse, which discussed implementing a model where students are given a challenging problem to solve independently and then share with a partner and use specific discourse stems like “I agree with the strategy you used” or “I disagree with you; here’s what I was thinking and here’s how I solved it.” This is a model that we’ve explored at DAA, but it was interesting to see how other schools have implemented it!

At the end of the conference, we attended a reception at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and got to walk through some moving exhibits on Civil Rights Activists, and think about ways that we use education as a means to creating a better, more equitable world for our students! 

We left Atlanta with a reinvigorated and excited mindset, and ready to implement some strategies we learned! Can’t wait ‘till next year!


6th Grade Crew // Our March for Environmental Justice


Last spring, in the 3rd module of the year, our 6th grade students learned how environmental issues can impact the health of communities across our region. Bringing local relevance to our learning allowed students to become truly invested in their work. It also motivated them to increase civic engagement in our school community to combat issues that impact our community. In Unit 1, students kicked off their study by reading portions of The Detroit School Bussing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy Over Desegregation, they conducted research about discriminatory housing practices that led to segregation throughout Metro Detroit. They even had the opportunity to visit the Black Bottom Street View exhibit at the Detroit Public Library to learn about a neighborhood that was demolished for the sake of Urban Renewal. They also analyzed a speech given by Mayor Mike Duggan at the Mackinac Policy Conference in 2017, in which he discusses the impacts of those practices on present-day Detroit. They took this knowledge of Detroit history and applied it to current events. They broke out into expert groups and investigated 2 community health issues that impact Detroit today, access to healthy food and air quality. Students read many articles, interviewed community members and got out into the neighborhoods to see the impact of environmental issues first hand. After conducting a lot of authentic research, students shared their learning by writing, directing and producing a documentary film, Environmental Justice: Past, Present and Future

Our crew’s original plan was to simply share the documentary in the community to raise awareness of environmental injustice in our community, but after extensive research they came to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t enough. So students proposed that we organize an event for the whole school to be carried out on Better World Day with EL Education! 

Leading up to the big day, students thoughtfully planned ways they could involve our whole DAA crew. They learned a little about what each crew has been studying, and eventually decided that the best way to include everyone was to plan a day full of activities that included a march, collecting litter, making recycled art and planting apple trees. They reached out to community organizations to get donations, and they made an agenda for the day.  They practiced how they would introduce each part of the day, and they set up technology and materials to prepare. When the Better World Day came it was amazing to see all of our DAA kids so invested in making our world a better place!

Update: Our student’s documentary Environmental Justice in Southeast Michigan was recently accepted into the EL Education’s Models of Excellence collection, an amazing and very selective resource of exemplary student work open to educators across the country. Take a look at the work created by our students that will be used as a model to raise questions, provoke thinking, and inspire excellence!

4th Grade Crew // Using Experts

Last year, during Module 3, the 4th grade crew studied the American Revolution in order to answer the question: How did the American Revolution and the events leading up to it affect the people in the colonies? For their final products, students were tasked with writing and producing a song that shared a specific perspective about the American Revolution. We started by listening to and analyzing lyrics from Hamilton in order to get an idea of how to share our knowledge about historical events though song. 

When it came time to write and produce the songs, we knew we needed an experts help, so we turned to Mr. “Red”. Darrel “Red” Campbell is a local producer, and on his first visit to our class we found out all about what it is like to be a songwriter and produce music. Mr. Red even got our musical brains working by leading us through various activities, such as the “no words rap battle”! During Mr. Red’s next visit, it was time to get to work on our songs. Mr. Red expertly lead us through the process of picking a beat and then writing historically accurate lyrics to go along with the beat. He brought in his own recording equipment and we were amazed by the quality of the sound when we sung using his speakers! 

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Our expert came back two more times to walk us through the process of refining and editing our lyrics to make sure that song showed everything we knew about the American Revolution while also sounding awesome. We realized that the writing process could be applied to song lyrics, too! 

On his final visit, Mr. Red brought all of his professional recording equipment and set-up in our computer lab. One group at a time, students went and performed the songs we had been working on while Mr. Red recorded. We realized that the real artists had to show a lot of perseverance when they record their work -- it took us quite a few tries to get it right! 

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With the help of an expert, our 4th grade crew was able to produce high quality songs and experience what it’s like to be a songwriter and producer along the way! None of it would have been possible without the expert guidance of Mr. Red, and we are so thankful to all the experts in the DAA community who work to give students authentic learning experiences this one. Check out the QR code to hear an example of one of the songs we produced! 

Kindergarten Crew // Field Study

At DAA, we learn by doing and getting our hands dirty. Students work towards investigating real community problems and applying fundamental skills they learn in class towards interesting, relevant, and meaningful topics. We do much of this by reading about, writing about, and researching about interesting topics for weeks at a time. But just reading and researching about these topics is not enough! We strive to make the learning as authentic as possible by engaging students in field study! Field study is not just an added supplement to our curriculum; it is a critical component to help students truly understand the topics they are studying and to give the students an authentic purpose for their learning. 

Kindergarten’s most in-depth topic of study is trees! We learn about trees for 5 months, starting with understanding what makes trees living, learning about the parts of trees, and learning about what trees need to live. We then move into learning about why trees are important and how animals and people depend on trees. Finally, we move into learning about ways to appreciate and enjoy trees. 


Last year, we went on multiple field studies that were integral to students’ understanding of trees! The first we went on was a Maple Sugaring adventure at UM-Dearborn! In class, we learned that one way animals and people depend on trees is through the sap that maple trees produce, which can be turned into syrup, gum, and rubber (among many other things). On our field study, we examined the system that experts use to tap the sap from the trees and then got to see our experts turn the sap into syrup! Yum! 


Our second field study was a tree exploration and identification and scavenger hunt at Palmer Park in Detroit! Palmer Park recently opened up a nature center and needed our expert knowledge to help create a field guide for field trips and programming they hope to embark on. We took on the challenge by working with 3 nature experts to learn how to identify 4 types of trees at Palmer Park by looking at the leaf types as well as closely examining the bark and any pinecones, acorns, or seeds that come from the tree. 

The field study really helped deepen students’ knowledge about each type of tree and set a purpose for our final product creation. After our field study, as students worked to write informational paragraphs about the trees they studied, they had a deep understanding of the reason for these paragraphs, knowing that they will actually be used to help other students visiting Palmer Park. This made it much more exciting and interesting for students to create work that really matters and that they felt a personal connection to! 

Morning Crew // A Time To Creatively Cooperate

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This year I’m very lucky to be a part of the morning routine with the Fourth grade cew. DAA is unique in that it values the time we share together as a whole crew. Each week Ms. Fowler and myself plan fun, engaging, and thoughtful activities for 4th graders to participate in for morning crew. We start each day with a greeting where we all get the chance to greet each other, it is such a great way to start the day! Then we do a share where students think about a topic and share their thoughts aloud. Using our school wide crew curriculum map we focus on a different topic each week and always relate them back to our Habits of Character. Our Habits of Character are compassion, responsibility, integrity, cooperation, curiosity & creativity, and perseverance. The sharing portion of crew is a great way for students to share their opinions and learn more about one another. It also provides them the opportunity to reflect on how they can show their Habits of Character during the school day. Lastly we plan an initiative which is a game or activity where students get the opportunity to practice while interacting with one another in a structured and fun way. 

As an art educator I am always trying to find ways for students to tap into their curiosity and creativity. Crew initiatives are the perfect place to implement fun challenges for students to work together and try something new! This year with fourth grade I have been providing them with opportunities to show their Habits of Character while also being able to think creatively. We have tried out some building challenges using different materials. Our first building challenge was using straws and modeling clay to work in teams and try to build the tallest tower! Our second building challenge was using different 3D building manipulatives to create a group sculpture. One of our last building challenges which focused on responsibility was to very carefully participate in a game of giant jenga! We even were able to show compassion and teach it to the first grade crew during our last Habit of Character Homecoming where we cheered them on as they stacked the giant jenga higher and higher! Morning crew is a time to creatively cooperate and get our mornings started on the best of notes.

6th Grade Crew // Brain Breaks

As an educator, one of the smartest choices you can make is to get to know your students. That is likely not a surprise to most people, but my reason behind it may not be one that you have heard before, so stick with me. 

When the first weeks of a school year come around, of course it’s good to learn favorite colors. By why stop there? Favorite foods, movies, tv shows, songs, sports, flavors of Faygo… kids still drink Faygo by the way. Learning all of that is great because kids love to share it and they’ll make connections with each other and you even learn what may be a good reward for them down the line.   However, when I look up at them during class, 9 times out of 10, those factoids don’t help me.

When I talk about getting to know a student, I mean a depth of knowledge you can only gain from consistency and trust. Getting to know what will hook a classroom of 25 to be engaged for a 60 minute lesson.  Learning what facial expressions mean “I’m zoned out” versus which expressions are actively listening. The real trick is figuring out when throughout a day or even a week a group of your hard working students have simply hit a theoretical wall or a temporary information intake overload.  BRAIN BREAK!

Brain breaks are tailored to the class they are being used for and the vibe of the class they are needed to be used on. A sluggish elementary class may need a 3 minute dance video to get their blood pumping and therefore their minds cranking again. Whereas an off task middle school class may need a few minutes of meditation to reset their focus. Detroit Achievement Academy teachers consistently use brain breaks to maximize student potential through the ups and downs of the school year. A key part of the break is explaining why it is happening and making sure students understand that they aren’t transitioning out of their class, but rather resetting within it! 

Relationships and understanding were the pillars, don’t forget. There must be purpose behind these strategic moments and if done successfully, they aren’t breaks from learning at all. If done perfectly, brain breaks are reminders that we are always learning if we open our minds to the subject matter.  

6th Grade Crew // Girls Advisory!

This year as we have started our first year of middle school we have begun advisory for our middle schoolers. Advisory is an opportunity to grow into a young adult and have a strong support system with staff members and students in their own grade. Most days our sixth graders are split into boy and girl advisories and focus on topics that benefit their own needs. In my opinion, one of the most exciting aspects of girl advisory this year has been our life skills days. Once a week we focus on a life skill that might not typically be taught in school but is beneficial once you are a teenager or adult in order to be more independent. 

The sixth grade girls have learned about topics such as financial literacy, basic cooking skills, hygiene, survival skills, and basic first aid. These have all been topics suggested by our students and have included future ideas such as basic sewing skills, how to change a tire, and career opportunities. 

Our financial literacy day consisted of how to write a check, balance a checkbook, how to read a credit card statement, and the basics of interest on credit cards and loans. On our cooking day we were able to discuss and practice hand washing for food preparation, knife skills and safety, and how to follow recipes for both salsa and hummus. Our first aid day touched on how to clean and bandage minor wounds, basics of CPR, and we went through a first aid kit and discussed what the benefits and uses of each supply was. 

In order to prepare our kids for future success we are trying to give them real world skills that are necessary in order to survive in the adult world. What are some life skills you would have benefitted from when you were in sixth grade? Please share more ideas with us in the comments!

1st Grade Crew // Mindfulness

Take 5 deep breaths. How do you feel? Do you feel calm? Were you able to focus and ignore distractions? Taking moments throughout the day to clear one’s mind and reset helps our students stay focused during the action-packed, content-rich first grade school day. 

Practicing relaxation techniques, which we call “mindful minutes”, are a valuable and integral part of our day. For example, after our 50-minute recess/lunch period, the daily practice helps students gain self-regulation and relaxation. When our first grade students come back to the classroom, they go straight to the carpet and as a crew we take 2-3 minutes to focus on various breathing techniques including: “balloon breath” (deep breath in, deep breath out pretending to have a balloon to blow up in one’s hands); “bunny breath” (3 short breaths in like a bunny, 1 deep breath out); “bee breath” (deep breath in, gentle buzzing sound out), etc.

Once I see that all students are resetting, they may choose their next “mindful” activity. For example, they can get a pillow from our calm corner to place on their desk or the carpet to rest their heads, they can get a coloring sheet to color independently, or even participate in yoga from one of our favorite websites—Cosmic Kids Yoga!

We also used another powerful calming technique called “Smell and Tell”. I will pass around something fragrant, such as an orange peel or lavender sprig for students to close their eyes and breath in the scent.

In addition to our set time, we take various “brain breaks” throughout the day to get our “wiggles” out. These brain breaks are a great way to release energy and have fun in a productive way. We typically use a variety of brain breaks from GoNoodle.com such as dancing, call and repeat singing, or meditation.  

Regardless of which of technique we choose, a different tone exists in the classroom after taking a mindful minute--one in which students are clam, focused and engaged. The time we carve out to reset sets the tone for our afternoon and the work we have left to do.

Social Work // To Be Mindful or To Not Be Mindful….That is the Question


Living in the current fast paced/instant gratification type of society, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to remain mindful of our present moments and current states of being. Subsequently, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of life. Our various responsibilities, jobs, and other social and family duties consume us. Research suggests that such high paced, rudimental behavior causes people to have higher stress levels. On the converse, the American Psychosocial Association complied various studies that identified some benefits of people making an intentional effort to remain mindful. Such benefits include (but are not limited to) reduced stress, increased focus, and boosted working memory. Having a strong understanding of the importance of practicing, we as a school community realize that we all (staff and students) need to spend time being mindful daily.

At DAA, we value the time spent during the day to be more mindful, so much so, that we have designated times allotted for staff and students to practice mindfulness. Each crew leader provides time for students to regain focus and engage fully in various activities that make them more aware, and thoughtful young scholars. While the specific mindfulness activities may vary across each crew, each experience is intended to help students calm down after lunch, reflect on their day, and essentially reset for the afternoon. Such experiences are not only a best practice in schools nation-wide, but they also tie together nicely with our Habits of Character. DAA regards Character Development as a high priority for our school community. Therefore, we believe that allowing students to begin practicing mindfulness at this early stage of their lives, will ensure that they will grow into more thoughtful, compassionate, productive, well-rounded citizens of the world.


Mindfulness in not a new idea. In fact, it is an ancient practice that spans across various cultures and religions. At DAA, we LOVE our mindfulness time. Students actually look forward to such time, and often are disappointed if they think they will miss out on that time. As we encourage our young scholars to remain mindful, we invite them to find time to be mindful at home with their loved ones. Below are a few mindfulness activities you can try at home with your family:

Stay Mindful My Friends,

Mr. Lemons

Kindergarten Crew // Problem Based Tasks in Math

This year at DAA, we have added a new component to our Math Block called Problem Based Tasks, which is a time for students to grapple with a challenging, open-ended math concept in a real-world context. Teachers purposely design the tasks to have multiple solutions or involve multiple strategies so that students can think outside the box and explain why something works!


At the start of a problem based task, we read the problem together and then fill out a K-W-I Chart, which stands for “What do we already know?” “What do we want to find out?” and “What ideas do we have?” During this section kids can work with a partner to plan strategies based on what they’ve already learned in math class. Unlike traditional math lessons, teachers don’t confirm or deny whether students’ ideas or strategies are right--we let them plan and test their ideas to see what works! After students think of ideas, they choose one strategy they would like to use and find a partner that wants to use the same strategy. They then work together to solve the problem!


In Kindergarten, we have recently been learning about comparing numbers using more than, less than, and equal to, as well as comparing measurements like capacity, volume, and length. For our capacity problem based task, students were tasked with creating a snack mix, using different amounts of snacks. The snack mix had to have a greater volume of some snacks and a lesser volume of other snacks. Students worked with a partner to come up with strategies (ex. “We can use bigger cups for the snacks that need a bigger volume!; “We can use lots of cups to measure snacks with a smaller volume and only one or two cups for the snacks with a lesser volume!”) They then went to their tables and started implementing their strategies! Teachers circulate during the work time and ask students open-ended questions that allow them to explain their thinking and make sense of the math concept (i.e. “How did you find out that ___ was more than ___?” “Which one holds a greater volume? How do you know?”) This was such a fun and interactive way to find different volumes and to understand more and less (not to mention, it was tasty!) 


At the end of a Problem Based Task, we have a debrief where students can share out what strategies worked, what strategies didn’t work, and what they learned about the math topic. This allows teachers to see what misconceptions students had during the task and allows us to adjust future lessons to include direct modeling, more vocabulary around the math topic, etc. Although Problem Based Tasks are sometimes challenging because they are so open-ended and don’t have a clear step-by-step process for students to use, they allow students to take risks and try new strategies to see what works and to develop a deep conceptual understanding of the concept.