Creative Classrooms through Empowered Teachers

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Creative Classrooms through Empowered Teachers: The Inspired Teaching Institute

Washington, United StatesWashington, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Young people possess an innate curiosity and desire to learn. But most schools are designed to transmit knowledge and keep kids in line. We fix this by teaching teachers—the most powerful lever for change—to engage students in serious play that fuels student creativity and promotes achievement.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if students got to play and learn at the same time and teachers taught students how to think, instead of doing the thinking for them?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Research shows a correlation between creativity and strong academic performance in students. In our 20 years in education, we’ve discovered that a creativity gap underlies the achievement gap. Low-income students are the most likely to receive impoverished instruction that teaches compliance and following directions, instead of providing opportunities for students to be problem solvers, solution seekers, inventors, social leaders, and creators.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We share the belief that young people are the R &D department of the human species; they are born to tinker, explore, test, prod, and discover. We transform classrooms, where young people come of age, into places where students are intellectually and physically active and where their innate creative talents are cultivated rather than extinguished. We do this through the Inspired Teaching Institute, a yearlong professional development program which teaches teachers how to change their role from information provider to Instigator of Thought. An Instigator of Thought teaches students how to think, engages students in serious play, and designs her classroom so that students are engaged intellectually, emotionally, and physically.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Joan is one of thousands of teachers whom we have helped transform into an Instigator of Thought. A 20 year veteran, she signed up for the Inspired Teaching Institute declaring that her pre-K students( in one of DC’s highest poverty communities) could not handle freedom and needed rigid structure. But after completing the Institute, Joan transformed her classroom from a place where she alone decided and authored the learning day to a place where teacher and students together authored the learning day. Together, they wrote classroom rules, created ways to handle conflicts and disputes, and even decided which content to study. Her pre-K classroom transformed from a quiet, compliant place into a boisterous, dynamic learning lab for students.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

1-Teachers trained by Center for Inspired Teaching outperform their peers nationwide in providing engaging instruction and a responsive classroom as measured by the CLASS™ instructional tool developed at the University of Virginia. 2- Students taught by our teachers are developing their creative and critical thinking capacities. In a 2014 survey, 96% of students in Inspired Teachers’ classrooms said they are allowed to be creative in the classroom and 91% said they are asked challenging questions. 3- The Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, which puts our teaching model into action and which launched in 2011, is recognized as the 2014 Best Elementary School in Washington, DC by the Washington City Paper Readers' Poll. Between its first and second year of operation, the school made the largest gains in the DC-CAS (state standardized test) of any public school in Washington, DC.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

1-Codifying and packaging the Inspired Teaching Institute, in preparation for expanding our reach beyond the DC region. 2-Designing a blended learning model of the Inspired Teaching Institute, that leverages technology so we can reach exponentially more teachers and their students. 3-Aligning the Inspired Teaching Institute to the Common Core State Standards and partnering with school districts to help prepare teachers to successfully implement the new standards through a teaching pedagogy (Inspired Teaching) that is designed to flex students' creative and critical thinking muscles.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We are intentionally cultivating a blended financial model in which we earn income from our partner school districts while also securing financial support from foundations and corporate philanthropists who are partnering with us to transform teachers into Instigators of Thought®. With this model, we have multiple stakeholders throughout the community all joined around a common purpose and common vision to transform teaching and learning.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Many groups work to bring play and creative learning into the lives of children through after school programs. Inspired Teaching works to inject creative learning directly into the school day so that children are experiencing from 8am to 3pm the learning that helps them become creators, problem solvers, innovators, and leaders. We engage preK-12 teachers as critical allies in this movement because teachers are the ones who design the classroom learning environment. We can successfully engage teachers because of our nearly 20 year history partnering with teachers to embolden their practice.

Founding Story

In the early 1990s, Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis taught a playwriting course to teenagers involved with the juvenile justice system in Washington, DC. In this course, a group of 20 teenagers (whom the public schools had written off as hopeless cases) wrote, directed, and presented in front of city officials a thoughtful play that confronted head on issues that plagued DC at the time: the crack cocaine epidemic, guns and gang violence. Aleta, who designed this year long playwriting project, realized that it didn't take a miracle to transform street-smart teenagers into powerful writers and young citizens with productive ideas; it just took an engaging and respectful teaching style that engaged students in serious play.


Our staff and board include a diverse mix of experienced classroom teachers, educational researchers with PhDs in education, improvisational actors, socially minded attorneys, and social entrepreneurs who share a passion for building a better school experience for students. Aleta Margolis, the founding director of Inspired Teaching, is a theater arts artist-turned-teacher-turned-social entrepreneur.
About You
Center for Inspired Teaching
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Project
Organization Name

Center for Inspired Teaching

How long has your organization been operating?

Please select

Organization Country

, DC, Washington

Country where this project is creating social impact

, DC, Washington

What awards or honors has the project received?
Funding: How is your project financial supported?

Friends and family, Individuals, Foundations, NGOs, Businesses, Regional government, National government, Other.


1- Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School voted Best Elementary School 2014, Readers Poll, Washington City Paper

2- "Three Religions, One Sacred Space" Teaching Unit, created by Inspired Teaching and rated "Exemplary" as a Social Studies Teaching Unit by Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity.

3-Three Teaching units created by Inspired Teaching ("Three Religions, One Sacred Space", "Chinese Airpocalypse" and "Rebellion in the New Republic" were rated Exemplary by the Literacy Design Collaborative, a national community of educators in the U.S. that vets and disseminates resources that exemplify best literacy practices.

Primary Target Age Group

3 - 5, 6 - 12, 13 - 17.

Your role in Education


Please specify which of the following best applies:

I am applying on behalf of a particular program or initiative.

The type of school(s) your solution is affiliated with (if applicable)

Public (tuition-free).

Intervention Focus

Curricular, Professional Development.

Does your project utilize any of the innovative design principles below?

Equip Adults to Drive Change in Learning: Providing creative learning experiences for teachers, parents, working professions and others that empowers them to drive change in any part of the learning ecosystem.

Is your project targeted at solving any of the following key barriers?

Trapped Between Competing Pressures: Educators face a lack of capacity to re-imagine and restructure educational settings.


We could benefit from advice about how to tell our story through a 3 minute video clip.


We are experts at using improvisational theater strategies to help transform the ways that K-12 teachers approach and build cla

What key learning outcomes does your work seek to improve?

Our Inspired Teachers strategically work to develop the 4 I’s in students:
1-Intellect: Students will apply content knowledge to relevant and new situations, problems and experiences.
2-Integrity: Students will demonstrate the skills and dispositions necessary to contribute to the shaping of a democratic society.
3-Imagination: Students will exhibit the skills of divergent thinkers: the courage to create and the ability to generate ideas and devise solutions.
4- Inquiry: Students will demonstrate the dispositions and skills of a researcher: intellectual curiosity and collaboration; internal motivation; wonder; keen observation; and attention to detail, data, and possibilities for further investigations.

Secondary Form
PROGRAM DESIGN CLARITY: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Please succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details

Our expert staff of teacher educators engages hundreds of teachers, in Washington, DC & other metro areas, in the Inspired Teaching Institute each year. The Institute is our year-long personalized coaching program for Teacher Leaders that kicks off with a 2 to 3 week summer intensive and follows with monthly classes and monthly in-classroom coaching sessions. Through the Inspired Teaching Institute, we challenge teachers to ignite their own imaginations and intellectual curiosity so they can do the same for students. The Inspired Teaching Institute is taught by our staff and Inspired Teaching mentors, who bring, collectively, over 300 years of teaching experience to the work of transforming teachers into Instigators of Thought in their classrooms.

INSPIRATION: What do you consider the most important trends or evidence that inspire you to believe the world is ready to Re-imagine Learning? Please elaborate.

Movements that celebrate learning-through-play and learning-by-doing are erupting across the US and across disciplines, communities, and fields of study-- from Maker Faires to GoldieBlox to tinkering camps. At the same time, researchers such as Mitchel Resnick, Alison Gopnik and Stuart Brown are giving the movement credibility and heft through their research studies, reports, or books. Between the grass-roots movement and the accompanying research work validating the value of serious play, the time is ripe to take this movement mainstream.

LEARNING THROUGH PLAY: What does “learning through play” mean to you and why it is a must-have, instead of a nice to have?

We believe that every child possesses the ability to engage in serious play: to think critically, learn and understand information, and solve complex problems—and that students should spend their time in school engaged in serious play. We teach teachers how to make this happen through our Wonder-Experiment-Learn Cycle in which students build their own expertise by asking questions that are important to them (Wonder), engage with those questions to see what they can figure out (Experiment), make discoveries that deepen their understanding (Learn).

SUSTAINABILITY: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating the percentage that comes from each source.

Inspired Teaching’s revenue stream for FY 2013-14 is as follows:

43% from foundations
33% earned income from school districts and other vendors
12% from corporate partners and individual donors
6% from government grants
6% from other sources

MODEL: How does your mission relate to your business model (i.e. Non-profit, for-profit or hybrid)?

Our mission is to create seismic, sustainable change in the school experience for students by investing in teachers. A nonprofit, we partner with school districts, AmeriCorps, the DC state education office, and private foundations, enabling us to create sustainable change from within the system while building a broad base of support for change.

FUNDING PRIORITIES: If your organization were given $20K in unrestricted funding today, how would you use it? Why?

We have begun the process of codifying our teaching pedagogy, toward our ultimate goal of shifting the norm in all schools. Twenty thousand dollars in unrestricted funding would enable us to finish codifying the core principles of Inspired Teaching and to start disseminating our pedagogy beyond DC.

PARTNERSHIPS: Tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

Inspired Teaching has sustained a partnership with the DC Public Schools over nearly 20 years, during which we have worked with 10 superintendents. This partnership has allowed us to cultivate Inspired Teachers in classrooms throughout the school system. We partner with other school districts as well and with AmeriCorps and universities to help spread our model strategically, and we are a part of Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools Network.

COLLABORATIONS: Have you considered or initiated partnerships with any of the other Challenge Pacesetters? If so, please share.

Inspired Teaching is engaged in conversations with Jennifer Breevort with Pop-Up Play and six others within the Ashoka network about our project. We will invite those who are in the mid-Atlantic region to visit our Demonstration School as a first step in exploring partnership opportunities.

VISION: If you had unlimited funding, and you could fast forward 15 years to when your program has been able to achieve wild success - what will it have achieved?

Going to school will be like going to work in a NASA lab. All students will have real responsibility; make important decisions; look for answers when they need new information; play; experiment; take risks; learn from failures; and return home each day exhausted and exhilarated from their accomplishments, and eager to return to school the next day to continue to engage in serious play.

IMPACT - KEY METRICS: Please list the key data points that you would cite as evidence that you are able to achieve lasting learning outcomes. Please also share one data point for which you most hope to see better results over time

Inspired Teaching uses the CLASS™ observation tool to gauge the strength of the teaching practice of those whom we train. CLASS™ provides us a picture of our teachers’ ability to 1- engage students in high-quality learning; 2- cultivate a classroom that is positive and responsive; 3- organize the classroom around effective instruction.
We assess our teachers' classrooms twice a year using CLASS™.
The attachments share more details.

IMPACT - REPORTING SAMPLE: Please attach any examples of your impact reporting. [optional]:
RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE: Please link or attach any research or evidence resource you are open to sharing more widely [optional]. Building research and evidence is a key aim of this initiative, and the resources you share may be chosen for listing in the Center for Education Innovations library:
SOURCE: If applicable - who created the research or evidence you are choosing to share? :
IMPACT - REACH: How many people did your project directly engage in programmatic activities in the last year?

0 to 500

STUDY: Has an external evaluation or study been conducted of your organization?


Other (please specify)
Number of Employees:


Number of Volunteers:

Fewer than 10

APPROACHES: Given the complexity of play, it is not surprising that there have been numerous research attempts to categorize the different types and approaches! Please indicate which of the following your project focuses on.

Physical Play, Creating a Supportive Socio-Emotional Environment, Educational Structuring (developing playful projects within educational contexts), Adults Participating (Ensuring adults are able to play alongside children), Challenging Play (play that disrupts - where rules are disregarded and levels of imagination are high).

Other (please specify)
AFFILIATION: Please specify if your organization has any existing affiliations with the LEGO Group.

Our Demonstration School is an Ashoka Changemaker School, and we have been introduced to the LEGO Group by Ashoka.


Holly Saltzman's picture

Have you thought about creating an online teaching tool? What you are doing sounds exciting and something we would be interested in offering our teachers. However, we are on the east coast so attending The Inspired Teacher Institute it would be a long commute for our teachers. Thoughts? Holly Saltzman

Gerry Orz's picture

I have to say, I applaud you for what you do – I’m now 12 but I was always pretty upset by the fact that teachers were trying to shave me into the box with everyone else instead of listening to what I had to say. Even when it was super important.
I agree that by developing and promoting creativity in kids, we are building a happier, smarter and kinder generation. Please keep on going and hope you will be able to implement it everywhere

Vishal Talreja's picture

Love the name "Center for Inspired Teaching" and love the idea to invest in teachers who are true role models in shaping our children.

There are some great concepts that we can learn from - Your 4 Is and the way your measure teacher effectiveness and we would definitely like to talk to you more about that.

Dream A Dream has been working with children and young people from vulnerable backgrounds over the last 15 years - developing their Life Skills through Play.

3 years back, as we were thinking about scaling the impact of our work, we realized that we have a ready resource in teachers who are already in the schooling systems. Over 1 Million in schools across India and hence embarked on a journey to Transform and Empower Teachers who can develop Life Skills in children. After having worked with 500 teachers in the last 3 years, we have realized that the core of our work needs to be around Unlocking Empathy in teachers.

The classroom is an unpredictable space and when a teacher engages with empathy, he is able to manage the unpredictability and actually move the class forward. We further realized that the way to unlock empathy is to develop core competencies around - facilitation skills, creative thinking, listening and authentic sharing, authentic acknowledgement and vlidation and the ability to build trust amongst students.

We would love to hear your views on the same and explore possible areas of mutual sharing and learning.

Thank you,

Warm regards,

Dream A Dream

Matthew Barr's picture

The Inspired Teaching Demonstration School sounds like it is well on its way to having an impact on how our nation’s youth experience play and creativity in the classroom. Can you explain what goes into “codifying” your approach? And after ‘codifying’ How will the required lessons will get to the teachers who are unable to attend the demonstration school?

Creativity will bring good positive changes in our thoughts. It helps to refine our thinking power and improve our skills and ability. Therefore in different education organization, we have found teachers with effective creative skills, so that they are able to serve good quality of learning to their students. Apart from that, they are also inspiring others to do something unique and creative. So it is quite better to take some positive lessons from creative thoughts and while implementing these, I hope we are able to get good results. Thanks for highlighting such wonderful points.