A Summer of Maker Learning

Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Maker

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                         Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                           Design and Thinking, the Movie

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from our school staffs. Imagine the recess play that used to be the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

Consider these questions.

How are our schools better spaces for learning and learners as a result of the standardization movement? Are our little “widgets” happier, more creative, more capable critical thinkers? Can we say they’re learning to … play well with others … contribute positively to their communities … acquire competencies needed in contemporary and future workforces?  Can they access and use the learning knowledge they need from multiple sources both virtually and in the real world?

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my district engage in maker “summer school” curricula, one not predefined by standardization or test-driven results. They’ve created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve balanced the use of embodied and encoded languages, the DNA of human learning. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits,  designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Our district’s elementary maker summer camps were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A diverse group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of different leaders into their school. They built teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills, making games, websites, and programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on #make2learn and #learn2make as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to adult talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Those with effective “doing school behaviors” might get their A’s and look like good students but they also often feel disconnected from joy and passion for their work as learners.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s also felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers  today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced so students will have covered what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners - field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting the school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between  middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.  “Test prep” disadvantages all learners as experiential learning has been subtracted from our classrooms and schools. Our children who face challenges associated with risk factors are disadvantaged the most.

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                      Rotman School of Management                                       Design and Thinking, the Movie

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of measuring what students know in standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

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Unhurrying the Hurried Educator: A Convo about Personal Learning and Passion

My first iPh*ne reconnected me with a love of photography that I’d abandoned at some point. Perhaps it was because I had become so consumed with my professional work. Or, maybe it simply reflected the difficulty of having a camera with me when I had moments I wanted to capture. However, when I discovered the pretty decent quality of my embedded phone camera, I became somewhat compulsive about grabbing photo opps both inside the schools I walk routinely, as well as reconnecting with the built and natural world.

Photo-sharing inside flickr, instagram, and Pinterest offers the chance to share photos with others and build a different kind of PLN that is image, not text-based. I know I’m a better photographer today as a result of reflective interaction inside global photo PLNs. I also believe a rediscovered passion for photography has positively impacted me professionally. Use of my own photos inside my blogs and in professional media reminds me that pursuing learning outside my profession also adds value within it.


Recently, Steve Hargadon spent time with a small group of educators in the community where I live. The conversation led me to reflect on the value of photography in my life.

For over an hour, we chatted about education, from Virginia to Nepal. At some point, we ventured onto the topic of personal interests and passion. We began to explore the narrative of what interests us beyond our profession. Where do we find personal sources of learning passion in our own lives? What do we enjoy personally as learners? What are we drawn to do outside of our day (and night) jobs as educators? Why should we connect with a personal passion for learning beyond work -whether it’s gardening or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity?

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

Steve wondered with us how our own personal learning pursuits and passions help us as educators to both recharge ourselves as well as to elicit similar learning passions from young people we serve and colleagues with whom we work. He shared his own personal interests, including building a PLN of people around the world who live with Vitiligo, a pigment disease experienced by Michael Jackson – and Steve. Some in the room that day shared their personal interests. One administrator described his love for Emily Dickinson poetry and his own poet’s alter ego as Dickinson’s “third cousin, twice removed”, Emmett Dickinson. Another described a passion for cooking. Someone else whispered, “I garden.” Some simply listened.

After Steve moved on to his next stop in his wayfarer world, I began to reflect further on our conversation. I was reminded of something Karen Olivo, youthful Broadway star from the Tony-winning show In the Heights, shared on Skype last spring with our local high school cast who were about to perform In the Heights. She commented to them that being an artist is “a way of life, not just a job.” She spoke to her own passion for what she does.

I think most educators feel that way, also. Sometimes it’s hard for us to separate our lives and personal learning passions from our profession. For example, our young people performances of In The Heights caught fire on stage because of the passion and love of performance their drama teacher brings with her to work every day.

Ms. Olivo shared her personal story of rehearsing, finally performing day and night for months, and, at some point, choosing to work through significant illness because the cast was counting on her. A young performer in the room asked her what she did to stay focused day in and out during the show’s run. She responded when people were sitting out there beyond the lights expecting her to deliver, she was compelled to bring her best to each beloved moment she spent on stage. Ms. Olivo sounded just the way many educators do about their work, too.

IMG_1035Yet, I fear even as we cherish the passion we find inside our own profession, it’s a life that also consumes us. We often don’t take time to step away and reflect on what else is important to us outside of the walls of our classrooms and administrative offices. We begin to miss the vicissitudes of life around us as we move in and out of the boxes we call school, day after day. In doing so, we disconnect from our early passions – whether in pursuing personal interests or igniting a love of learning in young people. We may forget what brought us to love learning ourselves and into the most important profession in the world. We may no longer see ourselves as learners with interests we want to pursue, too.

With Steve, we discussed that day how our own passions for poetry, photography, music, art, collecting, gaming, projects, sports, writing, drama reading, history, and so on can help us ignites interests, and ultimately, learning passions in others. The conversation centered upon the idea that as we pursue our own lifelong learning work, we become models of curiosity, inquiry, and motivation. While others may never share our interests, we can inspire them to find their own. When our own interests and passions become stories, then our stories can be shared to engage others in learning.

As we bring our own interests alive, we can connect dots for young people that lifelong learning isn’t something we do for grades, but rather because we love to learn in our own way, in our own time, about those things that intrigue and inspire us. Our personal interests also provide down time from the intensity of our day jobs. In our pursuits, we step away from being “hurried” educators, whether for an occasional few minutes, few hours, or few days. We renew and refresh our memories of what it means to take risks to learn something new, to stretch our own thinking and skills, and to find joy in the simple pleasures of doing what we love.

And, that’s good for us and it’s good for the people with whom we work as well as those we teach.

Art Stow: the Bagpiper Principal

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Learning Naturally


I’ve been thinking about the end of the cycle of another school year. Of course, there is no end to school really – no end to learning ever. School is simply one anchor point in the day in the life of learners. Educators who recognize this come to teach differently than those who see annual high-stakes tests as the end game. These committed educators aren’t bound by the old traditions of factory schools or the new rituals of corporate-run schools, those teaching places commonly grounded in a Gutenberg model of “write it , print it, read it, and recall it.” They may even work in those places but manage to “teach as a subversive activity.”  These teachers understand that learning naturally sustains curiosity, passion, interest, and inquiry within children in their journey towards the rite of passage we call high school graduation.

maker space

a maker space class

In reflecting on the natural learning that occurs for children through storytelling, play, simulation, dance, making, and apprenticeship, I am reminded that the invention of the printing press opened the door for school to become synonymous with education. As a result of this, both the culture and measurement of learning shifted from what children were learning to do in natural environments to what they were taught in school to remember.

Today, we know somewhere between early and recent human learning directions lies a space where hands and minds intersect in deep learning. It’s a space that great educators occupy with the learners they serve, inside and outside the walls of the classroom.  As an assistant dean of a medical school said at a Bio-Tech conference speaking about the interactive, interdisciplinary, inquiry model being used at his school, “medical students today need to show us what they can do, and embed their knowledge in that.”

More Pk-12 schools need to embrace that approach to learning if we are to create more than “by chance” opportunities for all children to remain curious, inquiring, engaged learners after age four,  just as this medical school strives to do. There are public schools doing just that.

capturing images

3rd grader capturing QR code


parent capturing QR code

I recently had the opportunity to tour an annual interactive museum that’s been in the making since the mid-90s in an elementary school that I know well. The children there have moved over time from showing their “paper-based” portfolio of inquiry, arts, and writing to a portfolio that includes digital and traditional artifacts of their learning. Despite the changes in technologies, educator commitment to “P-based” learning has remained constant in this school. Children ask questions and take apart problems of interest to them through an I-Search process that results in projects about which they are passionate. Their school year cycle ends annually with a culminating Quest Fest at which they share their learning across the school community.

questfest5At the Quest Fest, I watched children adding to a collage of geometric shapes in a hallway to create a new mural. “I wonder” videos displayed by first graders captured all their curiosity about things that interested them. A maker classroom was suffused with the delight of children building from milk cartons, cardboard and other people’s discarded treasures. The hallways were full of parents and children, mobile devices in hand, decoding projects through QR codes posted everywhere. Kids stood around explaining their projects and wandered the halls and classrooms looking at other children’s projects.

A schedule of performances offered insights into the children’s work through songs and skits they had written to share.

Inquiry. Writing. Art. The 20th century morphed into the 21st and these children along with their teachers are blending these with new technologies to create opportunities that never before existed.

something old, something new

something old, something new

In many ways, what I observed at the elementary Quest Fest is the best of learning as it has always been – learners wondering, storytelling, playing, making, imitating, depicting, creating, and performing. They are showing what they can do while embedding what they know. I’d like to think, when given natural learning opportunities, children educated in this way will sustain pursuit of “lifelong learning” as a way of being from cradle to grave. What more could a community, state, and nation desire from school for children?



Carved, Powerful

Help Build Teaching

Not a Toy

Medicine Doll.

By Quinn

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On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

Who are the learners today who learn in the moment because of their own interests or because they need to do so? The learners who don’t just learn on command when we want them to learn? Where are the citizen-thinkers who tinker to learn and who get their hands dirty, perhaps earning a callus or two along the way? Could the “culture” of creativity and innovation we so highly prize in America be an outcome of skills we developed within families and communities as we fought first to survive, then to subsist, and, finally, to expand from East to West? Is that culture still breathing? Are our schools on their own when it comes to educating America’s young people? Are we in what America’s top CEOs call a creativity crisis? Where are our fence designers today?

When I reflect upon the ingenuity of early colonists homesteading in the Blue Ridge, it’s pretty obvious to me that despite a lack of “school” education, these families depended upon deep creative and critical problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes I wonder if schools were ever a source of this nation’s creative genius or whether our creativity and passion for innovation emerged as a socio-cultural skill of survival that continued to be honed across generations until… today.

Perhaps our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all schools we have inhabited for generations but also by our current capacity to acquire the resources to buy, service or replace on a whim. Or, maybe despite our urge to still repair or fix things around us, our creativity’s being defeated by technology advances that lock us out of problem-solving possibilities. I suspect it’s a combination of all of these. As the digital divide fades away, will the next divide be between those who can create and respond in the moment with innovative solutions and those who cannot? How important are concrete experiences to honing creative and critical thought?

It struck me as I chatted recently with a local plumber at work with his seventeen year-old son that his son was learning something that most of our children are not. They were working on an older neighborhood home with a mash-up of pipes carrying water inside and outside, from well to drain field. I watched this young man work with his father to problem-solve the size and length of pipe needed, how to find underground pipes they needed to locate, and where to drill through an unanticipated concrete, not cinder block, footing.

I simply listened and watched as the two of them worked together, sorting through a series of multi-step problems that involved spatial relations, mathematical-analytical, verbal-linguistic, and kinesthetic intelligence; with a healthy dose of deductive reasoning on both their parts. They didn’t use any computer-based technologies, but rather a few old-fashioned technologies that most of our kids today can’t name, let alone use: the pick-axe, the shovel, the measuring tape,the level, the square, and the pipe-wrench. Many today disdain these tools as beneath them, but I was struck in watching these two at work that perhaps the lack of these tools in our children’s lives is one reason we as a culture appear to be losing our creative edge.

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

I think about my visits to schools over the course of this school year. While I love seeing new learning technologies being used by young people, I also appreciated second graders measuring with unifix cubes and handmade rulers, middle schoolers playing stringed instruments, chemistry students in goggles analyzing mixtures in old-fashioned test tubes, and kindergarteners with hands covered in blue finger paint. I loved the imagery created by the first grade teacher in her rocking chair reading from a picture book with children gathered on the floor, second graders chasing each other in a healthy game of tag, and high schoolers outdoors at lunch hanging around picnic tables and lounging on the ground.


Comfort, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking

In reflection, what I most value is the level of activity and engagement everywhere I look in our schools from fifth graders using iPod touches to race hallways in an in-school scavenger hunt to third graders dancing with their music teacher. Isn’t it this movement of thought processes that defines how we connect with our creative genius? When I see minds in action, not passively contained in rows, I believe that the intellectual juice of this nation can still power deep learning through the vast array of tools at our disposal, inside and out of the places we call schools.

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

These tools represent the dichotomy of our struggle to teach this techno-generation: how we capitalize upon using new technology learning tools while making sure our young people don’t lose the capability to use old technology tools as well. When we power up our young people with the “high-tech” learning tools we make available in our schools today, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must still power up our young people with musical instruments, paintbrushes, Legos, beakers, bones, pulleys, picture books, woodworking tools, kitchen stoves, blocks and more.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Our youngest children need to have their hands on a variety of tools, but our eldest do as well. All of our children need time to socialize face to face, not just in text bytes. I want our young people to graduate with the skills to problem-solve how to fix a leaky faucet or rewire a lamp that stops functioning. I don’t want them to always feel compelled to search the Internet for an “Angie’s list” problem-solver for all their household conundrums.

I want them to…

  • wander parks, fields, forests and their own yards, taking time to not just glance past a Viceroy butterfly or mantis but also to ask questions and seek answers about that which they don’t know
  • be inspired by music from a range of genres and time periods – to grow up savoring the natural world and the arts
  • understand scientific concepts that underpin how things work, what things are, and systems that explain and support life
  • engage in passionate dialogue about the rights of humankind through informed perspectives based on deep knowledge of history, politics, religion, and culture
  • speak a second, and maybe even a third language, but especially to understand the language of mathematics and,
  • see themselves as poets, narrators, conversationalists, and consumers of literature

I guess what I am really looking for is a nation committed to creating a learning renaissance with an infusion of enlightenment thrown in to extend and challenge the thinking of young people who represent the future. And, yes, I’d also like to see our young people use technology to connect, communicate, and collaborate with the world; to draw upon the experts, their peers, and the breadth of resources that together make pathways to deep learning universally accessible to all of our young people.

We now have the capability to turn on a faucet of learning opportunities unlike anything in the history of humankind. But, shouldn’t we make sure our kids don’t lose the capability to problem-solve as the best of plumbers and fence designers do while also learning to produce and create in the clouds?

** I first wrote and published this at Edurati Review.

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Gratitude Past Due: Lessons on Culture… People… Determination

I often find myself awake in the early morning hours in front of a flickering screen searching for words to describe how I feel about micro-conversations in which we share, chat, discuss, and, with some predictability, argue about all things education on Twitter. Finding words is usually pretty easy for me. Getting them to stick to a page is quite a bit harder.


Recently, in a room full of kindergarteners, I remembered words – not new words, not 21st century words, not ed-jargon words – but simply the words of the person who helped me understand that nothing holds more power than the voice of an educator who remembered across his own career that we are first teachers, no matter our position. Despite the premature loss of my first mentor, I still return to his words when the weight of this profession sits heavy.

Those of us in the tweet world are, in 140 characters or less, at any given moment political, social, educational, and emotional bedfellows, living in word-based relationships that occasionally verge on divorce or fickle love over the turn of a phrase that offends or reinforces. We bridge distance and time in a real-virtual world that sometimes draws me into a fleeting thought about the philosophical conundrum of materialism-dualism in our world. But then, I am pulled back to consider the issues of teacher quality, standardized testing, performance pay, grading scales, tenure, NCLB waivers and the like  … back to a place where, sometimes, I worry that I allow words inside the tweet world to create an identical magnitude of earthquake out of every issue in my stream.


That’s when I ask myself, “Of all the things I can choose to spend time on and care about, what’s most important to the learners and educators I serve?”

And it is that question which has led over this winter break back to my first mentor and a bond that began on the first day of my teaching career and ended just four years ago when I was tapped to speak the eulogy voice of educators he had touched. He was a champion of the powerless, a fierce voice of passion on behalf of our profession, and a mentor who cut to the heart of what it means to be a leader, a teacher, and a learner. He might have been a TFAer if growing up today, but instead he entered the Peace Corps after his Ivy League school graduation; then dedicated a life to our profession. He taught me long ago to never give up on the hope our profession offers; and what I learned from him still helps me see beyond our issues, divides, and the current crises of my educational heart.

Lesson I:  You the leader set the tone for the culture in the school. Build and model a culture of learning, not punishment, for adults and the children you serve.

How can you create chaos in the first ten minutes of your teaching career? On my first day, I did just that. All you have to do is pull a snake out of a pillow case in a roomful of seventh graders, and say something like, “he won’t bite..”, then stand there with a black rat snake’s sharp teeth embedded in your hand, blood dripping to the floor.

With kids screaming, standing on tables and chairs, I knew in my heart “this will be my first and last day as a teacher.” Then the principal opened the door, never saying a word as I attempted to regain crowd control, and waited just long enough to know I was okay.  It was my first teachable moment with this mentor. I said to him later that day when we talked, “I thought you were going to fire me.” His response, “and how would that help you teach?” I laughed, he smiled, and in that moment we together launched my career in education.

Lesson II: Keep your door unconditionally open and be available to the people you serve. Relish the opportunity to help them find solutions to problems. In doing so, you both become part of the solution and not the problem.

He was the eternal optimist and where some people saw problems as rocks that could not be moved or surmounted, this mentor worked like water flowing in a river; always finding pathways over, under and around problems. There have been many times over the years when I knocked on his door, picked up the phone and called, or emailed after our pathways diverged. I still can hear his voice even now, a caring, but confronting, voice which did not brook escape from responsibility:

“So, are you going to spend your time admiring the problem or actually solve it?… Do you just want to ‘awfulize’ about this, or work it out? … You might as well spend your time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless you are willing to really do something about this problem.”

Or, I might hear his favorite comment on who really owned the problem, “Pam, you can bring your monkey into my office – and I will pet your monkey – I will even feed your monkey, but when you leave – you need to take your monkey with you.”

Lesson III: Determination comes from inside people. It’s what keeps young people learning when adults move out of their space. It’s what moves adults to remain open to trying new ways of reaching a young person disconnected from learning. It emerges from passion, inspiration, and joy, the product of both hard work and serious play.

When he died, people wrote what became pages of stories and quotes remembered from their own experiences with my first mentor. In sharing those at his memorial service, we realized together that we all belonged to him as learners and him to us as teacher. It was a powerful moment to realize that we all had been gifted individually and collectively with the opportunity to grow careers grounded through his compassion and love for life and learning. We all paused that day for a moment of gratitude, past due.

“Our children are still developing into adults, they make mistakes, and our job is to make sure they learn from them and are not defeated by them.”

“Make decisions based on what is best for children, no matter what.”

This mentor, a master weaver, created a fabric of influential professional voices over time; facilitating many of us who worked with him to find our teaching voice, our leadership voice, and our personal voice in the service of young people. He articulated a powerful vision that all children (and educators) will learn, given enough time. He taught us that what’s important to learn transcends that which is simply rote, and, we must walk the walk of commitment to creating rich learning options for every child we serve. Every day he modeled unswerving passion for and gratitude to our profession; a lifelong choice for a man whose brilliance and resources allowed him the option of pursuing any career. In many ways, he was a leader before his time.

These lessons that I learned from him still frame the compelling work of teaching, learning, and leading and define a profession that must be about culture, people, and determination rather than issues that others outside the profession have defined for us. His words have evolved into my own words to share with a younger generation of educators and with colleagues who sometimes need to hear their work is important, valued, and that failure while sometimes painful is an important part of our own learning.


The kindergarteners with whom I’ve spent time over the years surprise and delight me with their enthusiasm for all things learning, seeing themselves as growing up to become scientists, Olympic swimmers, artists, paleontologists, builders and, yes, even teachers. They are fearless in their pursuit of learning. When I think about all the “earthquake” twitter issues of seemingly great magnitude, it’s the kindergarteners who remind me of what’s most important in our work.

Tonight I am grateful in the screen-lit dark for five-year-olds who remind me of my mentor’s learning lessons for a lifetime, the most important of which is to make sure our young people leave us with a lifelong love of learning, a sense of belonging, and value for others, regardless of differences.


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11 Reasons Why I am Thankful for American Education: Revisiting Perspective

 Horace Mann once wrote “the public school is the greatest discovery of man.” He understood the importance of public education as a foundation for creating a  culture of democratic participation in the relatively young United States of his day. We in America have come to take public education for granted, something that is still far from reality in many parts of the world. Mann and his fellow educational dreamers took nothing for granted as they built the early system of public schooling.

This past October, the world learned of Malala Yousafzai, 14 year-old Pakistani female student and social activist, who the Taliban attempted to assassinate because of her advocacy for the right of young girls to an education. Her story reminds me that public education stands between (as Lincoln orated in the Gettysburg Address) a government “of the people, by the people, and for people” and one controlled by a privileged subset, serving the interests of not all the people – but rather a select few. Malala understood the power of learning as a tool to liberate voices of women in her own country. The Taliban feared such power in the hands of young women whom they have subjugated for generations. Education liberates.

Education also creates. In revisiting the work of Neil Postman, I discovered this description of the importance of public education in the End of Education (p.17):

“Public education does not serve a public, it creates a public. The question is, What kind of public does it want?”

America’s public educational system serves children in what some call Statue of Liberty schools, ones whose doors are open to all regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, handicap, or economic background. While we certainly need to answer Postman’s question as we work to un-anchor from the low orbit test prep curricula and factory schools of the late 20th century, we should also acknowledge that we have much to be thankful for when it comes to the work of America’s educators, its young people, and the communities that support our schools in creating a public for and of America.

Over time, we’ve pushed our doors open to the children of immigrants, to females, to those with handicaps, to children living in poverty, to those representing any religious belief or none at all, and to young people who once were segregated for no reason other than color. Our educational system is unique that way and we should celebrate its success in sustaining the Republic, even as we seek to advance the possibilities of our public education system as a space for contemporary learners.  What we have here doesn’t exist everywhere.

So, here are the 11 reasons I’m thankful for American education.

  1. In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China or have access to quality education in general.
  2. In India, less than 40% of adolescents attend school. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 9.6 million school children not being enrolled in school at all.
  3. In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Compulsory education now extends to 8 years of schooling, a recent extension across the country.
  4. In Afghanistan, only 14% of female children are enrolled in primary school.
  5. In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate.
  6. In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism.
  7. In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 38% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 54% of college students in the United States.
  8. In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day.
  9. In Finland, 42% of teenagers in school reported being intoxicated within the last thirty days, more than double the U.S. reported rate.
  10. In Germany, most “special needs” students attend “special schools” that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties.

Bashing public education has become a national sport for media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. While our public education system certainly has room for improvement across multiple factors, we continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as academically driven as South Korea’s best or as academically successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty Schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed. And, of course, there’s number …

11. America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded the right to a free, public education. This gift, I do not take for granted.

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Our Kids Are Talking. But Are We Listening?

Voices of learners inform the compelling purpose of our roles as educators – why we exist. The voices of learners, if we listen to them, also call us to question whether 20th century “command and control” structures and practices serve contemporary learners well.

Command and Control

In the first decade of my work as an educator, I had the chance to watch Dr. Bill Glasser interview local high school students about their experiences in school.  Not even one of  the mostly “teacher pleaser” kids on stage chatting with him in front of a district-wide assembly of educators could describe their high school experiences as creating joy, passion, or interest in their learning. That was 1986. In describing his perspective on the foundational work needed to create quality learning opportunities, Glasser that day explained to educators why the coercive environment we often create in school does little to meet what he labeled as the basic needs of all humans to:

survive and be secure
belong and be loved
gain power to gain and keep respect
be free                                                                                                                                                  have fun

He ended his student chat with a message to educators that has resonated with me ever since that day, “If something isn’t working for you, stop doing it. Consider changing your own behavior.”  As I consider the last decade of escalating public focus on whether we are educating children well, the data suggest that we are accomplishing exactly what we expect to accomplish in school – Bell curve achievement is still the goal for students that it has always been.  And, despite all the attention to reading, trend data are essentially flat since 1971.

Over the last year, I’ve had the chance to listen to learners sharing with and even teaching educators in planned “student voices sessions.” It’s been a personal mission to provide young people with the chance to inform adults’ understanding of what learners value about their experiences in school. I believe learners of all ages have important perspectives to which we must respond if we’d like to change the stories they tell about learning in this century.

Access is critical if we want to optimize learning for this century’s learners.

A year ago, a high school senior spoke to my school board about the challenges of growing up in a rural area and the impact of the digital divide playing out in her life with no technology or broadband availability in her home. She described how access challenges limited her capability to apply to colleges and FAFSA online, to work with peers on Google docs at night, to pull down homework assignments on the Internet, and to do research for AP courses. She attributed her acceptance to a top flight Ivy League school to a teacher who loaned her a mobile device so she could connect to colleges as her subdivision peers were doing. She shared the necessity of tool and Internet accessibility for today’s learners so they aren’t caught in a growing digital divide.

library studio musicians

Learners activate when they get opportunities to search, connect, communicate, and make.

In May at #ICTEDU at the Tipperary Institute in Thurles, Ireland a 12-year-old chatted on a panel with educators about the long stretches of frustration and boredom he experiences in school as compared to the excitement of attending the interactive, informal, student-determined, project-based learning of a #coderdojo, a movement in Ireland begun by 20-year-old James Whelton just a couple of years ago. Boredom is a state of mind among high school students and a key factor that leads to dropping out of school.

Kids see working together as quality learning time.

Last June, I asked a group of first graders to co-teach with me to share how they are using iP*ds as learning tools. In sessions facilitated for about 300 educators working in a summer learning institute in our district, the first graders articulated that “ working together lets us write more interesting stories.” Their excitement about co-creation of a “day in the life” photo album at school using their tablet tools was palpable to everyone in the room. Their teacher understands that the quality of their work reflects shifts in pedagogy, space, and tools and continues to unfold her response to contemporary learning.

Choice matters.

In October, a third grader and high school senior answered questions in front of a live audience at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit about their experiences as learners. The high schooler described the importance of teachers and librarians understanding the power of choice in what students read and the projects they do. The third grader said at one point, “I get to go to the library but just when the teacher lets me.”

4th graders teaching Scratch to teachers

Everyone can be a teacher and everyone can be a learner.

A group of fourth graders helped two teachers to facilitate a workshop on coding with Scratch at a recent district professional development day where I work. They shared some of their projects and then assisted the teachers in trying out Scratch. The class evolved into a Coder Dojo for grownups in which students became teachers and teachers became learners. Watching the children assist adult learners reminded me that the hierarchy of schooling is shifting as young people accelerate technology skills more quickly than many of the adults responsible for teaching them do.

High school students chatting learning with teachers

Joy and Passion are good for learners and teachers.

That same day I dropped in on a group of high school students facilitating a session on what teachers do to make learning work for them. One young woman said that teachers who are focus on testing all the time don’t seem to have passion for their work – it’s the teachers who get excited about what they teach and whose passion is contagious who get kids excited about learning. The students noted that they enjoy learning in those classes. In this small discussion group, the students led the teachers through an exercise using Legos to build education as they believed its future to be.

Why Listen?

We talk a lot about how the world is changing. We spend a lot of time admiring the problem of being stuck in the early 20th century cult of efficiency that shaped schools into factories. We set mindless targets for results, outcomes, performance indicators, and measurements of standards that represent reductionist thinking about what’s important to learn in this century. In doing so, we subtract joy, passion, interest, choice, and quality, losing valuable opportunities to optimize access to powerful learning. We  forfeit the potential of activating learners as teachers and teachers as learners.  We sustain old traditions of schooling that anchor learning to standardized tests of a narrow range of what humans need to learn.

Bill Glasser knew in the last century educational traditions needed to change. We held the possibilities of those changes in our hands in 1986  but continued down a path shaped by the factory school makers of the early 1900s. Now the factories have been outsourced along with the factory work. So, what’s the grand challenge of 2012?  If our job is to make mindful decisions that transform 20th century teaching into contemporary learning what key shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, tools, resources, and culture do we need to consider now? Where do we look for what we need to know and do? How will we respond to what’s coming next?

According to Mozilla’s Pascal Finette, the rising culture of participation coupled with technology advances and the power of networking will instigate the most fundamental change ever in human history.

Education will be a part of that change.

I think our kids also are telling us that, too. But, are we listening?

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