This teacher is using video games in his lesson plan. And kids (obviously) love it.
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Microsoft

It all started with a lesson on "Romeo and Juliet" and a student who wanted to show what he learned ... using Minecraft.

Chris Aviles, then a high school English teacher, didn’t even know what his student meant by that idea. But he let him run with it, so Aviles' student re-created scenes and settings using the popular video game — and his classmates loved it.

"Once the other kids saw that he was allowed to do that, you know, it kinda blew up in the classroom," says Aviles.


That moment sparked a change in how Aviles approached education and technology with his students.

Aviles with his eager students. Photo by Katie Smith, used with permission.

Aviles is now the ed-tech coach for Fair Haven School District in New Jersey, where he runs the Innovation Lab, a new kind of learning program with a curriculum that's very in tune with the times.

"We teach students design thinking, computer science, engineering, digital arts like podcasting, video-making, and entrepreneurship," says Aviles.

"It's kind of like a 21st century think tank, maker space, where we really just try to get our hands dirty and give our kids the experience that they need to be successful in the future."

And if the projects are any indication, it looks like his students are having lots of fun learning. "I had kids making music videos, I had kids making raps, I had kids making movie trailers for books, I had kids using Minecraft and building 'Catcher in the Rye' scenes," says Aviles. "Next thing you know, my kids are making, making, making all the time."

Aviles' teaching method is based on two pretty awesome principles: gamification and game-based learning.

Gamification in this case means using game mechanics to engage students, like splitting into teams and scoring points in class activities. Game-based learning is using actual video games like Minecraft to teach and assess kids.

Photo via Microsoft, used with permission.

"There’s a lot of lessons that you can learn in a video game and that lesson is being delivered in pretty much every kid's favorite format," adds Aviles. "And we’re kind of crossing that line where learning is fun and fun is learning."

And at the Innovation Lab, it's all about customization and collaboration.

That’s why Aviles loves Minecraft so much as a teaching tool. It’s a blank canvas where students can create anything their heart desires. On top of that, kids are able to learn at their own pace. Says Aviles, "I can have 25 kids all in Minecraft doing 25 different lessons at varying difficulties while I work around the room and I teach through the trouble."

Photo via Microsoft, used with permission.

The lab is also about empowerment. "Instead of the being the person in front of the room who thinks they know everything, I work alongside my kids, and I push them towards their goal, and we’re now learning together in the same classroom," Aviles says.

He likens this learning process to when he teaches kids how to code. "It teaches them how to attack a problem. It teaches them that it’s OK to fail the first time because you might not get the answer right the first time. And then you go back and you troubleshoot and you squash bugs over and over until you get the desired result. And so that process of thinking like a coder, I think, is really valuable."

Currently, only 40% of K-12 schools across the country actually have a computer programming or coding class, but Aviles says he hopes that will change in the near future.

Getting kids involved in computer science early is especially important given the lack of diversity and unique voices that exist within the industry.

"Whoever is writing the code is going to be controlling the future," says Aviles. "Right now, the field is dominated by white men, and making sure that a diversity of voices is represented in computer science is only going to ensure that the population that this technology serves is equally represented."

Photo by Chris Aviles, used with permission.

The computer science industry is projected to yield 1 million more jobs than students by 2020. So getting kids interested and encouraging them to make their voices heard can only bring forth a more unified and prosperous future.

Adds Aviles, "Every kid has their own background and has their own story and experiences that they can bring to the next product that is going to serve millions of people."

Interested in getting your child to explore the wonderful world of code? Check out Microsoft’s new Minecraft coding tutorial, as well as all the fun (and free) resources available on the YouthSpark Hub.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Jennifer Lawrence

After being a Hollywood staple, Jennifer Lawrence vanished from the public eye following the release of "X-Men Dark Phoenix" in 2019.

Sure, the pandemic had something to do with that … in addition to the usual way our society treats Hollywood "it" girls, once it grows accustomed to the flavor. But in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence opens up about some other reasons she chose to step away for a time.

Lawrence went from being a highly sought-after Oscar-winning actress to starring in less-than-successful films like "Passengers," "Mother!" and "Red Sparrow." The films were not only poorly received among critics, but commercially as well.

"I was not pumping out the quality that I should have," she told VF. "I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I'd gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn't do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, 'Why didn't she run?'"

So then, why do it? As any workaholic would know, it's about so much more than money.

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

Looking for some good gift ideas that wont break the bank? We've got you covered with these five suggestions available at our very own Upworthy Market! You can feel good about your purchases, too. That's because every item you buy from the Upworthy Market directly supports the artisans who crafted it.


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Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

A professor's message to students has gone viral.

If you know any teachers, you probably know how utterly exhausted they all are, from preschools all the way up through college. Pandemic schooling has been rough, to say the least, and teachers have borne the brunt of the impact it's had on students.

Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

A college student posted screenshots of a professor's message on Twitter with the comment "someone PLEASE check on my professor." It's simply incredible.

The message reads:

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