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BENTON — Once school is out and middle school teacher Kalli Colley is dealing with regular life, she notices interesting learning opportunities almost everywhere: In the decisions people make, in news stories, in everyday work, and even ordinary forces of nature.

In the Marshall County school district, teachers who can combine academic standards and real-life applications are in demand. For many students in the district, learning often involves experiences and activities that reach across subject areas, pull in relevant events or tasks, and spark interaction with adults and the community. For Colley, the off-time brainstorming flows easily into the classroom.

“My husband and I were planning a vacation and starting to discuss where we might go, what we’d like to do, Airbnb versus hotel, and reading carefully about options,” she explained. That slice of her own life almost fully explains the activity underway in her language arts classroom at South Marshall Middle.

Small teams of students worked as travel planners. Colley created 10 “client profiles” describing fictional people eager to enjoy leisure time. The profiles listed desired trip length, budget, activities, and other pertinent notes or preferences.

For instance, Sam and Mary, the fictional retired couple in the group, wanted to spend $3,000 or less for a five-night getaway. Sam likes taking nature photos but doesn’t want to walk too much because of achy knees. Mary is picky about restaurants and only eats out at places with mostly positive reviews. Colley’s profiles included stock photos of each set of “clients.”

Students scanned the internet and bounced ideas off family or friends to devise a trip that met the clients’ specifications. The assignment involved research, targeting a specific audience, informational writing, organizing a presentation, and more. Math and geography content was involved. Colley said the project also let her see how well students were understanding inferences, being accurate and precise in their work, and recognizing the difference between wants and needs.

After suggesting an ideal destination and itinerary for the clients, student teams turned their findings into a presentation promoting their recommended destination. It was presented to adults including local tourism and chamber of commerce officials for questions and feedback.

Colley said that designing engaging learning projects with student work worthy of an outside audience leads students and educators to gain more from classwork.

“The good experiences I had in school were ones that were memorable,” she said. “We say that if what we do in here makes it to the kitchen table, we taught them something.”

HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER MARTY VAUGHAN EXPLAINS AN ASSIGNMENT, which is also recorded for students to view later, for a writing workshop at the STEAM Academy in Lexington.

At South Marshall, middle school students and families can choose to enroll in the Explore team, where Colley teaches. Explore focuses on education experiences that incorporate students’ personal interests and learning styles. Stressing real-life skills, examples, and community resources, the goal is rich understanding of key academic content.

Colley said the approach has changed her view of teaching.

“This involves a learning curve for teachers and adjusting when things don’t work, but it also leads to so much success,” she said. “Students aren’t doing an assignment and only getting a grade that ends up in the grade book and then, no matter what they make, we move on. If there are lingering gaps in their understanding, those are still my responsibility. We try again with a new approach — a third, fourth, or fifth time if necessary.”


“Deeper learning” strategies are known for seeking student ownership and engagement. However, the success of the active experiences also elevates teachers, requiring careful planning and creative design.

Many Kentucky educators describe their own increased ownership and engagement as a powerful step forward.

In Marshall County, educators seeking to boost student proficiency first looked into deeper learning seven years ago. The district promised support for teachers willing to pursue new approaches. In addition, leaders drafted a graduate profile pledging that all classrooms would work toward applying academics through skills connected with adult success.

The profile calls for students to develop communication, creativity and innovation, character, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and citizenship as they learn core knowledge,

Jackie Reid, Marshall County’s supervisor of instruction, said that seeing students engaged in authentic learning experiences, demonstrating their work, and reflecting on the skills gained has created a big change in the way educators view teaching, learning, assessment, and success.

“When I started as a principal, our schools had some of the highest test scores in the state. That’s how you gained recognition.” Feeling satisfied, however, disappeared after Marshall educators joined a Kentucky delegation that visited Wisconsin schools focused on student ownership, personalized learning, and durable skills.

“It was almost a kick in the gut,” Reid said. “Watching the students there, I felt a pit in my stomach — like you know that what you’ve been doing is wrong. We saw all of these ideas in place, and there was no question that those kids would have a major advantage over Marshall County kids. They were doing so many things that we should be doing. At that time, our kids had no idea how to problem-solve or work with each other. “

Marshall leaders held local meetings with community leaders and employers. “We asked what they expect of entry-level workers and started hearing all of these things, knowing that we were not teaching it,” Reid said.

The district found many teachers and administrators eager to dive into deeper classroom learning. Navigating the new emphasis has been a professional learning experience here and in many Kentucky districts.

Transforming academics and classrooms “to equip students to be in the real world” is a major change for teachers and school leaders, said Chris Flores, director of the STEAM Academy, a high school program for Fayette County students launched in 2013 around deeper learning and durable skills.

Sometimes teachers have an idea but may not fully know how to bring it to fruition or make it authentic, so we spend more time in collaborative mode, working with each other.

— Chris Flores, STEAM Academy director, Fayette County 

Teachers fill the gap between academic concepts and how they are applied. Getting students more involved and reaching a solid level of understanding tests educators with new roles as motivators, facilitators and coaches in areas like communication or problem solving.

“We ask a lot. We want students to be seen and heard. When we see deficiencies, we want to help them through that,” Flores said. “The teachers who want to be here want to challenge what education was when we went to school.”

Success in deeper learning requires educators to become more flexible and reflective, he said. Creating a cooperative workplace is a must.

“Sometimes teachers have an idea but may not fully know how to bring it to fruition or make it authentic, so we spend more time in collaborative mode, working with each other,” Flores said.


At the STEAM Academy’s open, artsy space in north Lexington, students in Marty Vaughan’s English I class gathered in a lounge space outside the classroom or found quiet areas in a session set aside as a writing workshop. Some wrote new sections. Others revised their own work, or reviewed one another’s pieces, or consulted with Vaughan.

As the period progressed, their teacher found time to record a short presentation sharing his guidance for the assignment — a tutorial that students could access online any time. A few students watched as he recorded the video, picking up on his advice.

This setting and structure offers plenty of freedom for students, meaning progress at various stages of completion. Vaughan said that teachers here learn to juggle technology, student questions and struggles, and help teens adjust to the learning atmosphere built around deeper interaction with academic concepts, real-life connections, and explaining results.

“Differentiation is at a whole new level here,” he said.

The English I class is a full-year course, versus the semester classes common at STEAM. The full-year English schedule the transition for students arriving from traditional middle schools across the Fayette County system. “In a lot of cases, it’s a shock.”

The facility, opened by the Fayette district in 2013, is a partnership with the University of Kentucky’s Center for Next Generation Leadership in the College of Education and includes built-in early college courses, community internships, and project-based learning.

Students need as many experiences as possible in how academics are applied. Otherwise, we’re not giving kids the skills necessary to succeed in a world that’s going to change before they are even out of high school.

— Gary DeBorde, STEAM Academy teacher

Vaughan said that while new approaches pose challenges, the goal of engaged students moves the job of teaching much closer to the creativity and learning breakthroughs that led many teachers into education.

“I saw too much wrong with the typical American high school classroom,” Vaughan said. “It’s a broken system. Here, I saw the opportunity to question norms and innovate. We’re give the freedom to try and fail forward. It’s a pretty cool place to be.”

Gary DeBorde, an engineering teacher at STEAM since the program began, said he was drawn to principles of design-thinking, where hands-on assignments are built for an authentic customer or end-user. School should encourage students to be thoughtful and results-oriented, he said.  Beyond producing work in line with a project or assignment, students need to be able to justify their choices along the way and explain the final product.

His freshman engineering class offers a grab-bag of challenges — designing fashion, creating board games, building a carbon dioxide powered drag racing vehicle, and more. Using specifications from a national technology student group, DeBorde advises and equips teams of students who work to produce and refine pieces that can ultimately be judged in state or national competitions.

Many educators involved in the push for greater student engagement point to new partnerships and interactions with employers and community members as a step that has expanded their professional focus. The emphasis opens ways for students and teachers to see how academic concepts are actually used.

“Students need as many experiences as possible in how academics are applied. Otherwise, we’re not giving kids the skills necessary to succeed in a world that’s going to change before they are even out of high school,” DeBorde said.


In Marshall County, upgrading teaching through professional collaboration has become an all-day, everyday experience for fourth-grade teachers Shannon Hamlet and Amanda Murphy at Sharpe Elementary.

After seeing the results a pair of teachers in a Wisconsin school achieved using a flexible space to creatively group students, collaborate, and juggle varied experiences throughout the day, Hamlet and a colleague asked to try it. The district arranged to take out a wall at Sharpe to create the giant space where Hamlet and Murphy now work together with 65 students.

Hamlet and Murphy are enthusiastic about using project-based learning to create central themes that prompt new thinking and work from students. In the fall, their fourth-graders spent weeks on the book “The Wild Robot,” about a robot that awakens alone on an island, unaware of what to do next.

It proved an amazing diving board.

“We studied camouflage and adaptations in science, read fiction and nonfiction texts in language arts, researched animals and biomes to write a feature article,” the teachers explained. “We used engineering to create dioramas of biomes and learned about maps and landforms in social studies. We even covered math standards.”

AT SHARPE ELEMENTARY IN MARSHALL COUNTY, fourth-grade teachers Shannon Hamlet, foreground, and Amanda Murphy work in a combined classroom where 65 students work in flexible groups and teachers collaborate throughout the day.

At an exhibition for parents and family members at the end of the weeks-long project — featuring a robot that students built in honor or Roz, the title character — students discussed what they had learned and how topics connected.

“We just stood back and watched,” Murphy said. “Parents talked about how passionate their children had been. They were proud the children had done so much work.” The large robot in the gym lobby made the project a buzzy topic in the school.

Hamlet said that the co-teaching arrangement and focus on projects has enhanced her potential as a teacher.

“Teaching is a lot about planning and reflecting, and we can do that all day,” Hamlet said. “We can create small groups for students as we see that is needed, and when a lesson is going south or not clicking, we are a tag team. It’s constant planning in motion all day where we are also continually assessing kids and ourselves.”

Hamlet is energized by conceiving projects that grip students and allow them to learn across subject areas.

“Hands-on learning has been very important to me from the beginning of my teaching career,” she said. “It’s the way I like to do things.”

Seeing the sense of discovery in students has become a driving force.

“Students who struggle get a chance to shine when it connects to life, and they feel more freedom,” Hamlet said. “Seeing the a-ha moments of connecting and pulling in so many standards is a big payoff. And we can go bigger.”

The day after the parent exhibition on the robot project, Murphy and Hamlet were already thinking ahead to January, mulling the next big unit. Still on the table: a biography project — maybe a wax museum.

“We’re proud of what we can put together and so proud of what the kids can do,” Hamlet said.

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TOP PHOTO: South Marshall Middle School teacher Kalli Colley talks with eighth grade students planning a presentation.

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Inspiring creativity  Empowering students requires teachers ready to choreograph experiences around discovering, questioning, and taking knowledge in new directions. Resources for adjusting to hands-on learning and greater  teacher and student creativity:

Active teaching   “So how can we expand the ranks of teachers who provide genuine opportunities for students to engage in intellectually rich and personally meaningful learning experiences?” The question is a premise for a 2019 article in Kappan Online from a group focused on combining education research and practice for teachers. The article shares approaches of teachers based on key components of active student learning. “The promise of PBL and related student-centered pedagogies lies in their ability to prepare the next generation of citizens to confront a host of complex problems, from rising tides to rising inequality,” the article states. “None of these problems has an easy solution, and all will require people to work together in sophisticated ways, leveraging diverse expertise, creativity, and perseverance.”

Authentic connection   A Minnesota teacher and parent created a 2022 blog post about relevance and real-world connections in classroom teaching. The author has roots in experiential learning — a method of creating experiences for students and opportunity for reflection to build knowledge, skills and values. The post offers strategies for personalizing school learning and adding community connections.

Creativity for all   Kentucky’s graduate profile skills and deeper learning goals expect teachers to utilize creativity and teach it as well. The American Psychology Association’s Psych Learning site explores the challenges of classrooms that reflect creativity for adults and students alike. One suggestion in the 2018 article is for students and teacher to keep notebooks with the questions inspired by work or learning, which can then feed future discussions or approaches.

Project resources   The group PBL Works is contracting with Kentucky for deeper learning training. The resource pages on the group’s website provide educators with examples of projects on various topics and grade levels, rubrics, strategies, and more. The page even includes examples of project approaches for remote learning.

This special report on durable skills and deeper learning showcases emerging issues and school efforts to better connect school work and adult success.


1. RETHINKING NECESSARY SKILLS & ENGAGING EXPERIENCES to better prepare students for challenges to learn, work, and thrive beyond high school.

2. UPDATING OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS with local graduate profiles, greater student voice, and new connections to employers and communities.

THIS STORY: 3. RENEWING PROFESSIONAL POSSIBILITIES as educators explore creative options for learning experiences and personalized connections that spark student interest.

4. MAKING STRONGER PERFORMANCE MAINSTREAM by expanding engaging and effective learning environments to replace outdated approaches and preparation.


Marshall County
ENROLLMENT: 470 in 6-8
56% eligible for free/reduced price meals
5% minority

Fayette County
ENROLLMENT: 290 in 9-12
35% eligible for free/reduced price meals
47% minority

Marshall County
ENROLLMENT: 290 in P-5
54% eligible for free/reduced price meals
6% minority



The need for improved durable skills is no small matter for business leaders.

One recent business research report states that globally, soft skills training was a $23.6 billion enterprise in 2021 and is expected more than double by 2027. Corporate clients are eager to address skills gaps and encouraged by reports that training produces a significant return on investment.

In a 2020 blog post for Psychology Today, Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, emphasized the appeal of job candidates with strengths in creativity, communication, teamwork, and more.

“My M.B.A. students are eager for advice on how to stand out from the pack. Most often they seek guidance on where to boost their technical knowledge. They wonder, should I study Python or Java? Should I take more classes on blockchain? Is it too late to learn computer science?” he wrote. “All of those things could be helpful, of course, but my recommendation is more straightforward: Brush up on your soft skills.”

Hartman said the value of such skills is increasing. As machine power grows, people skills are a prized asset.

“Start with creativity. Organizations seek workers with bold ideas. They need employees who can design original products and services, as well as make enhancements to products already on the market. They want people capable of dreaming up improvements to worker productivity and internal processes. And they are looking for workers with game-changing inventions,” he wrote. “To get your creative juices flowing, you need to expose yourself to different ideas. … Be deliberate about creating opportunities to let your imagination run wild.”


Lonnie covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.

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