Voice Lessons

By David W. Major — January 01, 2002 25 min read
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Storytelling Arts Inc., brings the ancient tradition of oral storytelling into New Jersey classrooms.

It’s only 9:15 a.m. in Diane Jannuzzelli’s 4th grade class at Harrison Elementary School in Roselle, New Jersey, and already she has a menagerie on her hands. On this crisp autumn morning, her students are roaming the classroom, acting like animals. As they shuffle among their desks, while “getting into character,” Paula Davidoff, the other teacher in the classroom, is delighted.

Davidoff is actually a guest at Harrison. A professional storyteller, she’s been at the public school for five days straight as part of a residency to tell stories to students. She also is teaching the children how to tell stories themselves. One of the keys to imparting a tale, she has instructed them, is to gesture and speak as your characters would; it makes the delivery more compelling. So today, the kids are behaving in the manner of lions, frog princesses, and bears (and kings and sorcerers, too).

Standing by a series of tall windows, Davidoff is backlit by the brilliance of the day, leaves aflame with color as cartoonlike in intensity as the autumnal vignettes adorning one classroom wall. “Think about how your character would walk, how they would talk,” she says, her voice rising above the din of children lost in their new identities. “How would your character’s mood affect his posture? What expression would he have on his face?”

All week long, Jannuzzelli’s students—African American, Hispanic, and Asian children living in a working-class community on the outskirts of the city of Elizabeth—have been learning the rudiments of oral storytelling, notions like posture, gesture, and voice modulation. The exercise has given them a glimpse into what makes a story work—plot, character, pace, and setting. Anticipation is in the air because tomorrow their moment arrives: Each kid will stand before the blackboard and tell a folk tale of his of her choosing.

“Now, remember to use your voice with expression,” implores the tall, lithe Davidoff, whose own voice runs up a few octaves while her hands flutter away in excitement. As the kids quiet down, trying to imagine the proper sounds, only the hissing of steam radiators in this two-story, pre-World War II building breaks the silence. Jannuzzelli reaches into one of her desk drawers to retrieve a Polaroid camera so as to document what she’s witnessing—and clearly enjoying. “The way you look at your audience,” Davidoff continues, “and the way you use your voice will pull in an audience.”

Helen Wise, who works with 2nd and 3rd graders, says, “These are the most significant ages, the time for laying the foundation for language arts development.”
—Frank Fournier

Davidoff has been pulling in children for some time now. She’s one of the professionals working for Storytelling Arts Inc., a five-year-old, Princeton- based nonprofit organization that brings the ancient tradition of oral storytelling into New Jersey classrooms to facilitate literacy, critical- thinking skills, creativity, and self-esteem. The group’s target audience is impoverished children, who, statistics show, lag developmentally behind their peers in wealthier districts. Language skills, in particular, are a challenge, and poor students often suffer from emotional problems that impede learning. Susan Danoff, the organization’s 48-year-old founder and director who’s been a professional storyteller since 1979, relies on a staff of 12 missionaries, who are now teaching in 107 mostly elementary classrooms in 12 schools, reaching 130 teachers and close to 2,000 students. The group also works with teenagers residing in two juvenile detention centers.

“We don’t see ourselves as stage entertainers, although there is a performance aspect to what we do. We see ourselves as educators,” says Danoff. “It’s a long-term project with an explicit set of goals we want to accomplish for each grade. It’s not simply, ‘I’m going to tell these stories and get out of here.’ I originally wanted to have a presence in a school for at least one year, meeting with a class at least once a week. Today, in many cases, we have been asked to come back for a third straight year. Teachers are seeing results.”

Kids who once struggled with reading and writing now perk up with interest, she says. Also, test scores climb, and those teachers eager to participate in the storytelling process rediscover the joys of learning and bring renewed vigor to their profession. Most encouraging, they find new ways to observe, and tap into, sources of intelligence in their students. “This is the best thing that ever happened to our school,” says Barbara Tedesco, principal of Harrison Elementary. “It’s one of the best things for the kids we’ve done—and definitely one of the best things for teachers’ professional development.”

Storytelling Arts does, however, come across obstacles. Some schools, though intrigued by the program, don’t have the money to pay for it. At those schools that have signed on, some teachers are reluctant to change their classroom routines, while others resent the intrusion of an outside educator—though the nonprofit tries to avoid matching storytellers with such teachers.

But Danoff has ample reason to be encouraged. Five years ago, when she was getting her organization off the ground, she offered to cover the costs of the program with funds she’d raised from foundations. Today, many schools go to her with money of their own, which reflects a deepening commitment to storytelling- based curricula. In fact, in at least three of the 12 New Jersey schools the nonprofit group serves, a bona fide culture of storytelling has taken hold.

Danoff first witnessed the positive effects that storytelling has on schoolchildren in the mid-’80s, after the New Jersey State Council on the Arts invited her to serve as storyteller-in-residence at the R.J. Hill and Grant elementary schools in Trenton. Her audiences, she recalls, were clearly enraptured—as if, like a character from one of her folk tales, she’d cast a spell on them. Beyond helping kids with their linguistic skills, the tales seemed to embolden with confidence those who were willing to tell stories themselves.

‘We don’t see ourselves as stage entertainers, although there is a performance aspect to what we do. We see ourselves as educators.’

Susan Danoff,
Storytelling Arts Inc.

After that experience, Danoff, a former English professor at Rutgers and Princeton universities, wondered about the impact storytelling might have on curricula. Over the next decade, she became part of a growing network of storytellers who, like her, were drawing appreciative audiences, whether kids or adults, at schools and other venues. Two in particular, Paula Davidoff and Helen Wise, also recognized the potential for storytelling as a tool in the classroom. So with their encouragement, Danoff established Storytelling Arts Inc. in October 1996 and assembled a staff of professionals made up mostly of current or former teachers.

Today, the nonprofit operates on an annual budget of $250,000 furnished by foundation grants, state money, and the schools themselves, which are located either in cities or exurban communities where poverty is prevalent. Some of the schools cover everything. This year, for example, Paterson (Elementary) School No. 1 is paying the $12,000 fee for the instruction of 12 classes, amounting to 37 residency days. In the past, Danoff’s group helped defray the school’s costs. But now Paterson No. 1, like other schools, relies on both state aid and its own budget. So long as a school displays a genuine interest in storytelling, the nonprofit is willing to make any arrangement necessary.

“Storytelling Arts Inc. was formed because a group of professional storytellers in New Jersey thought we could make a significant impact on children in poverty,” explains Danoff, who speaks barely above a whisper. A slender woman who exudes a quiet intensity, she’s revered by colleagues, many of whom recall being drawn to storytelling because of her mesmerizing skill. “We thought we could provide a model for how the dynamic art form of storytelling can enliven existing language arts curricula,” she explains. “We could provide a bridge between spoken and written language, and we could bring joy and excitement to the creative acts of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.”

In order to reach kids, however, storytellers need lots of help from teachers and administrators. So before school starts in the fall, Danoff sits down with each school and maps out a curriculum that is both financially feasible and appropriate for that school’s culture and population. Once the year gets under way, the storyteller, depending on the ages of the students, visits weekly or biweekly, 30 to 60 minutes each time, for 15 to 20 weeks. Ideally, a teacher hands the class over to the storyteller, then sits among his or her students during the session so as to fully participate and witness the kids’ enthusiasm.

While working with students, a storyteller augments each folk or fairy tale with educational exercises, many of them administered by the teacher between weekly sessions. PreK students, for example, make illustrations of scenes from stories, and 4th graders keep journals while tracking down the written versions of tales they’ve heard. The vast majority of folk tales—originally intended to be heard, not read—come from established canons, such as books by the Brothers Grimm. Folklorists and anthropologists began committing these tales and others to book form in the early 1800s. (One of the best guides to children’s folk tales, according to Helen Wise, is Storytellers’ Sourcebook by Margaret Read MacDonald.)

Visits from storytellers help boost kids’ confidence and language comprehension.
—Frank Fournier

Storytelling Arts Inc. targets needy districts in particular because Danoff believes that kids in more affluent communities have parents who already read them stories and expose them to the wider world— critical advantages when a student is developing reading, writing, and comprehension skills. In fact, studies show that, when they enter kindergarten, middle- and upper-income kids are 18 months ahead of impoverished children in language development. Disadvantaged New Jersey students are best represented by the 300-odd kids participating in a Head Start program in Trenton. Ninety-nine percent live below the federal poverty line, defined as an annual income of $17,650 for a family of four; and eight out of 10 are African Americans growing up in single-parent homes headed by women. In Trenton’s elementary schools, two of which Storytelling Arts serves, 81 percent of the students are eligible for free lunch.

These bits of information were among the findings in the landmark 1997 New Jersey Supreme Court case Abbott v. Burke, in which the Education Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, sued the state’s department of education for failing to adequately educate poor kids. The court, after ruling that the education offered to many urban students is “tragically inadequate” and “severely inferior,” ordered the department to dramatically improve city schools. The state now has to give 30 “Abbott Districts” enough money and resources to adhere to New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards; match the spending levels of successful suburban districts; and provide the kinds of supplemental programs, such as those offered by Danoff’s group, that help eliminate disadvantages.

“Over the past two years, we have made a conscientious effort to develop programs that are in line with our needs-assessment analysis,” says Gwen Jennings, principal of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Trenton. “We have found our children are very mobile, and a large percentage often do not remain in one school for more than a couple of years, at best. We need to expose our children to effective programs while they are here, programs they can take with them. The integration of storytelling in our language arts curriculum brings that continuity.”

The younger the kids, the better the chance of reaching them, according to Helen Wise, an 11-year storytelling veteran who’s teaching 2nd and 3rd graders as well as special ed students this year. “These are the most significant ages,” she says of the preK and elementary years, “the time for laying the foundation for language arts development.”

The approach varies according to grade level. For example, when storyteller Ellen Musikant shared “The Tale of the Gentle Folk” with 1st graders, then assigned related educational exercises, her priority was to have the kids focus on the descriptive aspects of the Argentine folk tale, which compares a utopian community with one consumed with greed. Working with 6th graders, however, she dwelled on the story’s motifs of justice and freedom.

The younger the kids, the better the chance of reaching them.

At the preschool level, simple stories, such as “The Three Little Pigs,” as well as songs, chants, and a call-and-response format, help lay the groundwork for introducing kids to multicultural tales later. The idea is to get 3- and 4- year-olds to hone their listening skills. Often, however, storytellers step outside the narrative to initiate inquiries and discuss details. While doing so, they encourage the kids to take part in the storytelling process. “In responding to children while I am telling a story, their questions and interpretations take me to astounding places,” says Luray Gross, who works with 2nd graders at Wilson Elementary. “My idea is to lose track of who is leading and who is following. And the classroom teacher can be a huge help for me.”

Jim Rohe, who works with four 1st grade classes at Port Monmouth Road Elementary School in Keansburg, a town along the Jersey shore, recently shared with his students “The Ghost With the One Black Eye.” Whenever they asked him to retell the tale, he had teachers and their students reenact the story by playing the various characters. “I like the teachers to play a part, like being the mom in the story,” he explains, “because I want them to get the same feeling that the kids get.”

For a 3rd grade class at Harrison Elementary, Musikant introduced kids to newspapers after telling the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” To sum up various aspects of the story, she had them create headlines, such as “Bears Report Damaged Home.” Then she asked groups of students to mime scenes corresponding to those headlines. Classmates had to guess which scene in the story they were portraying.

Paula Davidoff, during one of her 4th grade classes at Harrison, told the children a story, only to abruptly end it halfway through. After her time was up, she asked teacher Diane Jannuzzelli to have each child write his or her own ending to the tale. Those endings were read aloud the following week. Sometimes, according to storytellers, a tale’s effect on a kid is immediate; other times the impact isn’t felt till months later. For instance, Khadija Agyapong, who teaches a preK Head Start class in Trenton, says that her school’s speech therapist, amazed by the progress shown by kids suffering speech impediments, attributed their gains to the Storytelling Arts program.

And Davidoff herself was once stunned by the performance of a shy ESL student. As he got up to tell the story of “The Boy Who Drew Cats,” he blushed, then stood frozen for several seconds. Davidoff was about to provide him with a graceful exit when, suddenly, the 4th grader began to share a moving interpretation of the tale with his class. Every student was spellbound, she says, and his teacher was astonished.

On a sultry July morning, as rush-hour traffic clots Nassau Street, a thoroughfare that runs alongside Princeton University, Susan Danoff is alone in the lounge of Whig Hall, where the windows reach from floor to ceiling. There is a circle of chairs on one side of the room, a large open space on the other. She’s fussing with a wheezing air conditioner that’s on the verge of expiring. In a few minutes, guests will arrive, and Danoff wants them to be as comfortable as possible. Finally giving up on the window unit, she resorts to big floor fans to push around the soggy summer air.

“We see ourselves as educators,” says Susan Danoff, the groups creator.
—Frank Fournier

The first arrivals enter the room one by one. They appear tentative, like self- conscious children on the first day of school. They’ve come from across the state, 15 elementary school teachers who have volunteered or been asked to participate in the Susan J. Epply Storytelling Institute, named for the late New Hampshire philanthropist who awarded Storytelling Arts Inc. a 10-year grant in 1999. The workshop, now in its second year, is led by Danoff, whose protégés will return to their classrooms with a new teaching tool. Then, during the school year, Storytelling Arts will provide their schools with in-service programs. The goal is to get the teachers here at the workshop to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues—to spread the storytelling gospel, so to speak.

Barbara Tedesco, the principal at Harrison Elementary, first learned to tell a complicated African chain story, “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears,” during last summer’s workshop. Her legs were shaking so much, she recalls, that she had to sit while speaking. Back at school, however, she performed in front of fellow administrators, teachers, and classes. “Storytelling taught me I have powers I never knew I had,” she says. “My friends tell me I’m a different person; actually, I’m many different people. These stories tell me that I have more than one personality inside me.”

Indeed, this summer session is a pep rally of sorts, a celebration of teaching as much as it is a storytelling tutorial. Nurtured by Danoff’s storytellers, who also are participating in the five-day workshop, teachers will return to their schools with renewed energy, heightened self-esteem, and an awareness of their own and their students’ creative potential.

After the teachers have taken their seats, Danoff asks each one to say her name, how she got it, and why she likes or hates it. As expected, everyone in the circle has a story to tell, some brief and some elaborate, some serious and some hilarious. Helen Mahoney’s is one of the best. “I want to tell you about when I was born,” she says. “My mother always says I was born under a star.” She reveals that she arrived earlier than expected—so early that she was delivered in the back seat of a car at a Texaco gas station in Pocahantas, Illinois.

Ellie Hoffman, a 2nd grade teacher at Wilson Elementary, says she’s always disliked her full name, Eleanor. “When I was a little girl, in about 2nd grade, I wanted my name to be ‘Bubbles,’ ” she recalls, her face breaking into a smile. “One day, I was visiting the school nurse, and she told me she had the same name, and she always wanted to be called Bubbles, too. Can you believe it? Two of us.” Everyone laughs.

Within an hour, the group’s personal reflections have had an effect. “What’s happened?” Danoff asks rhetorically. “We have shared an experience. We have heard one another’s voices telling something about truth and intimacy. These are the cornerstones of storytelling. Stories—our stories—connect us.”

‘The workshop is not just about how to tell a story ... It is an approach to teaching.’

Susan Danoff,
Storytelling Arts Inc.

Over the next few days, each woman learns how to “perform” the story she was asked to select before arriving at the workshop. The folk or fairy tale reflects its teller’s background—or, at the very least, contains themes that might resonate with the teacher and her students. As it turns out, they’ve chosen stories from around the world—Native American, Jewish, South American, and Irish, to name a few. Every morning, a guest artist supervises a workshop on, say, dance or creative movement. There are also lessons on mask-making, Japanese storytelling, and poetry writing—exercises designed to offer various avenues of creative teaching. The teachers, mentored by the storytellers, slave over their tales, grappling with the finer points of pacing, scene development, and projection. Danoff reminds them that, above all else, there is more than one way to tell a story, that an effective performance is really a form of personal expression.

On the last day of the workshop, the teachers take turns performing their stories during morning and afternoon shifts. For Danoff, witnessing their progress over the past five days has been like watching a flower bloom at high speed. At the workshop’s conclusion, as everyone shares last-minute reflections over dinner, she hits the women with one last question: “What do you think children are learning when we share stories in the classroom?” The group has little trouble coming up with about 50 benefits, among them: creativity, cooperation, empathy, morality, communication, and comprehension.

Diane Jannuzzelli, the Harrison Elementary teacher, who’s attending the Epply Institute for the second time, says it’s by far her most rewarding professional-development experience. “The workshop was great for me as a teacher. It has changed how I teach writing to my 4th graders,” she explains. “Telling a story makes that connection between reading and writing. Storytelling seems to have renewed my students’ interest in reading. There’s better participation in class.”

“The workshop is not just about how to tell a story,” Danoff says later. “It is an approach to teaching. Using different modes of learning—emotional, kinesthetic, visual, verbal, and intellectual—we draw on different parts of ourselves as we learn to tell, dramatize, create, and respond to stories. It is important for teachers to take the role of new learners so that they can identify with the children they teach and remember that we learn through deep personal engagement in process. Storytelling is just one way.”

So, is Storytellng Arts Inc. really making a difference? After five years in the business, Danoff is developing a number of ways to assess the educational impact of her organization. Her storytellers keep careful logs and submit end-of-the-year evaluations describing their classes, and teachers fill out questionnaires after each storyteller’s visit. At the preschool level, those surveys have yielded what Danoff considers three irrefutable truths about the sessions: 1) shy children otherwise reluctant to speak in class will participate; 2) normally restless children sit still and listen; and 3) immigrant students who usually don’t, or won’t, speak English willingly do so.

Gone are the days when Danoff had to knock on doors and offer Storytelling Arts’ services virtually for free. Today, school administrators come to her.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, a supporter of Storytelling Arts since 1998, has advised Danoff on how to create rubrics for evaluating storytelling. To measure a student’s comprehension of oral and written language, she asks teachers, on paper, to assess the child’s “visualization,” “ability to relate story to self,” “ability to relate text to other texts, motifs, and variants,” and “ability to relate text to the world outside the self.” Danoff also has come up with ways to gauge phenomena such as “development of community consciousness through storytelling activities,” “teacher involvement in storytelling,” and “participation of preschool children in storytelling.”

These rubrics, by design, do not generate the kinds of hard numbers that testing does; the evidence, rather, is anecdotal, producing observations about children that reflect cognitive and behavioral progress that is difficult to measure empirically. However, teachers who have kids for whom English is a second language report encouraging test scores. The Elementary School Proficiency Assessment, a standardized test issued to 4th and 8th graders in New Jersey, is considered a benchmark in determining a school’s academic progress. At Paterson School No. 1, where the ESPA literacy scores for 4th graders once ranked far below those of other schools, students are now meeting the state average. And principal Barbara Tedesco reports that those Harrison Elementary kids exposed to the Storytelling Arts curriculum have improved their ESPA scores significantly.

Port Monmouth Road Elementary, an Abbott District school, has each teacher administer tests to students before and after storytelling sessions. Teachers also fill out observation forms after half the sessions have been completed, and, at the end of the school year, storytellers themselves hand out tests that measure the progress of a class. In the fall of 2000, Danoff initiated a long-term longitudinal study for Cook Elementary, an Abbott school in Plainfield. She’s tracking one class for five years as it advances from kindergarten through 4th grade. In addition, students are being interviewed at the beginning, middle, and end of each year—as are teachers and storytellers.

There’s no doubt that Danoff has created something worthwhile. Gone are the days when she had to knock on doors and offer Storytelling Arts services virtually for free. Today, school administrators come to her, money in hand, and many teachers show a genuine interest in her curricula. But even among those who are cooperative, she has to make sure that already overburdened teachers don’t let the chance of sharing stories with their kids slip away.

And Danoff has faced some opposition. One workshop participant, who didn’t want to be named, said that administrators in her school ultimately rejected the Storytelling Arts program because they consider storytelling a luxury akin to art and music—and expendable during lean times. Danoff’s crew has also run into teachers who see storytellers as a threat, not an ally.

“We are asking teachers to enter a partnership with us,” she says. “We don’t want to usurp their role; we make a point to let them know that the classroom is always their classroom and we are merely guests. Our biggest impediment is teachers who do not want us. If they don’t, that is OK. But we do try to sit down with them and explain what we are doing, to see for themselves what we can do with them, working together.”

It’s after lunch on a fine October day, and Jim Rohe is ready to tell the story of “The House of Baba Yaga” to Anabel Alvarez’s 1st grade class at Elizabeth School No. 13. A jovial man whose ready smile and heavily hooded eyes give him a perpetual expression of merriment, Rohe explains that the Russian folk tale is about a child named Sasha. Her wicked stepmother has sent her deep into the dark woods to visit her equally mean aunt, who has a propensity for cooking children in a big cauldron and eating them.

“Once upon a time in old Russia,” Rohe begins, his voice heavy with premonition as he leans forward to lock eyes with the children, “there lived a mean, ugly, horrible, old witch. Her name was the Baba Yaga—the bony legs. On her bony legs, she could run as fast as the wind. She had sharp teeth that were made out of iron. And she lived in a little hut deep in the forest. The little hut stood on chicken feet so that if ever travelers came to this part of the forest, the hut would turn on its chicken feet and stare out at them through its front windows. . . . ”

Jim Rohe, playing his guitar, “Martin,” says of storytelling, “This is all I have ever wanted to do.”
—Frank Fournier

The kids—sitting cross-legged, elbows on knees, chins in hands—listen reverently. Rohe, who’s been telling “Baba Yaga” for years, knows instinctively how to unspool the yarn for optimum effect. All the while, he gauges the kids’ reactions at key intervals to discern their comprehension. The Spanish-speaking students, for whom English is a challenge, hang on Rohe’s words and clearly enjoy his fun house of gestures, sound effects, facial expressions, and voices. Sasha, he’s telling them, was able to escape the clutches of her mean old aunt by depending upon a creaky old gate as well as the wiles of a cat and a dog. Ten minutes later, as the tale is wrapped up, the children still seem to be deep in the forest, relishing Sasha’s harrowing escape.

“Well,” Rohe says, “how’d you like that one?” The children squeal with delight. Rohe reaches for his guitar, “Martin,” and a harmonica, then breaks into the opening chords of “La Bamba,” the Ritchie Valens rock ’n’ roll tune from the ’50s. Already, a half-hour has slipped by in what seems like only five minutes. It’s time to go. “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” Rohe sings, retrofitting the lyrics for his young audience. “Bye-bye, bye-bye.”

Moments later, as he makes his way to the door, kids clamor to get a piece of him, to ask him questions—anything to buy time and delay his departure. The reaction is routine and Rohe knows how to extract himself with grace. One child wants to know if he’s coming tomorrow. “No,” Rohe says. “Next week, and we’ll do more stories then.” Another boy wants to have Rohe over to his house for dinner. Not this time, the storyteller says with a long face.

Meanwhile, a little girl is edging toward his guitar case, to get one last glimpse of Martin as if it’s a genie in a bottle. Rohe lets her take a peek, and then he scoops up his guitar case, adjusts his “faux ‘Indiana Jones’ fedora,” as he calls it, and disappears out the door. In the stairwell, he pauses on the steps and pushes his hat back on his head to catch a breather. The storyteller, for whom every move seems to be spontaneous fun, grows momentarily serious. “That was a good session, not bad,” he says. “This is only my second class with them, so I wanted to see how far I can stretch them with that story. There is a lot to keep track of—you know, the hut with the chicken feet, the magic mirror and comb, the scene shifting from the yard and back to the woods.

“But they were right with me,” he continues. “Maybe it’s because I am right with them. I just identify with them. You know, this is all I have ever wanted to do; I have no ambition beyond this. After having so many odd jobs, I came upon this in 1988 when I volunteered to sing songs for my daughter’s preschool class, stuck inside on a rainy day during recess with only television to entertain them. So, I went down there to sing them some songs, and here we are today. And every day I get to play.”

Rohe turns and heads down the stairs. He’s running a little late for his next appointment: Tammy Freeman’s kindergarten class. As he walks through the door, the kids are politely waiting for him, sitting on a royal-blue rug near the blackboard. With a big smile, Rohe grabs Martin and breaks into “Hello,” his trademark song of greeting. Some of the kids sing along; others smile and clap their hands. Already, they’re having a great time. But this is only the beginning. Rohe hasn’t even told his first story yet.


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