Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning

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I recently visited our newest multi-age space redesign in a small rural elementary school. When we began the process to modernize this school, we knew we had to design and build new space from the inside out.  The school had some nice elements including a clerestory roof line that should have allowed natural light into classrooms but didn’t because tall storage cabinets added over the years blocked light from the classroom work areas.

In the redesign the school’s 20th century rectangular classrooms were combined to create a variety of multi-age spaces. An art room located in an older trailer and the small library were moved and integrated into a common arts and library space. The design team increased connectivity and transparency by adding doors and windows that opened up access to the school’s rural, park-like setting. The teachers in this school see the rural area, local farms, and natural environment as a learning asset. They also believe that access to fresh air and movement is key for learners to stay engaged throughout the day.

(the school’s playground view) 

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

When I visited this newly redesigned school, I watched a live cam of polar bears wandering the ice pack in the Arctic on a touch screen in the library. Multi-age learners gathered in informal hall spaces to work together on projects. Students oriented themselves at tables and on the floor to write in a 3,4,5 space  —  some choosing more traditional seating while others, as some teachers label it, engaged in “belly-writing.”

It’s not easy to make changes from physical teaching places to child-centered learning spaces. It’s even harder to shift practices, values, and beliefs associated with teaching age-based classes to those essential to creating viable, multi-age learning experiences. It takes time for teachers who have “owned” a room to learn how to share space, plan, and teach together.

Sharing space in concept is different than sharing in reality — for adult and young learners. Seeing children through a developmental lens in multi-age spaces challenges the way we’ve learned to use learning standards, benchmarks, and expectations in single-age classrooms. What does “on level” really mean? How do we teach grade-level math standards in a multi-age class? What do we notice about social-emotional learning development that’s different in a group of children ranging in age from eight to ten versus a class with all ten year olds?

Negotiating curricula, assessment, and pedagogy isn’t easy when you begin to work in a co-teaching team. Compromise, collaboration, and negotiation skills become critical to moving through the forming to storming to norming to performing phases of the team’s work. The dysfunctions of working in isolation become more apparent in teams than in the traditional structures and schedules of schools. That’s one reason why time to build relationships, plan, and reflect together is key to the process of developing a strong and effective team.

From prior shifts in redesigning spaces in our schools, we know that change is an iterative process with both growing pains and gains. I see it every time we go through the process. Are there strategies that increase the likelihood of success? Yes — here’s what I notice.

  • The ideal and real life of change are quite different. Accept that every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
  • The first step is visualizing big possibilities and then moving towards that vision in stages. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We must accept that deep change in school processes and practices doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Physical space redesign doesn’t force change but it can make it easier to shift to contemporary practices. More than anything, it’s the time adults devote to working together to design, plan, experiment, and reflect that results in change. You can’t undervalue investing the funds for the time teams need to build relationships and plan ahead. Space matters. Resources matter. People matter the most. Invest in their time.
  • Care, support, and empathy are essential to working with educators embarked on making radical change. We say that kids need to feel emotional comfort when they take on learning challenges. The same is true of adults.
  • Every time that we take a risk, it may lead to either success or failure. Celebrate success but avoid punishing failure. Many years ago a leader said to me when I took a risk and failed, “rather than beating yourself up, let this be a learning experience —  and consider what you would do differently next time. The failure to do that would be the real failure for you in this.” Be present as a leader with your team when you are taking them into the waters of deep change.  Leadership matters.

Finally, I’ve learned over time that children know everything we adults need to be wise in our work together. The children in this small rural elementary school recently offered words of wisdom to their peers and their teachers. Practice words of wisdom with the adults in your team and not just with the children you serve.

And remember, the sun always shines after a storm.

The Last Lesson Plan: On Losing a Teacher

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What lesson plan would you want written in your memory by your school community?

That question was framed for me in the most recent of many losses of a school community member across my career. If you work as an educator, eventually you will lose a colleague or a student. Sometimes that loss comes unexpectedly and sometimes it’s drawn out through the agony of time. In either case the loss represents tragedy.

I talked with our leadership team yesterday about the loss of a younger generation music educator, Eric, killed in a car accident the evening that Thanksgiving break began. I asked two novice principals affected by this teacher’s loss to share what they had learned about leading as they supported their communities to process this loss.

The high school principal said that as they returned from break that opening the music room for kids and staff to drop in and talk with each other was critical. “More than anything else we simply needed each other. The teachers came to the room with our students almost as if it was the home where everyone gathers after the loss of a family member.” He described the quiet conversations of sharing that occasionally shifted to notes from the piano or voices lifting in song, capturing the spirit and spirituality of Eric, a remembering that allowed their common grief and railing at his loss to turn to celebration of his uncommon joy in being a member of two of our school communities.

The principal of the middle school where this music teacher also taught commented simply that she had learned as she called every single staff member how important it was for them to hear her voice as a personal medium for sharing Eric’s loss with each of them individually. They needed the timbre of her real voice — not an email or a voice message.

As these two principals spoke, I was reminded of a similar time when as a young principal my own school community lost a novice kindergarten teacher. More than anything in my career, leading a school community through that loss, and subsequently many others, taught me that principals are ultimately tribal leaders, looked to for their voices, care, guidance, and skill in bringing people together to make sense of and respond to the needs of the community as a whole and its members as individuals.

Death is a test of our school communities. It halts time. It presses us to remember that we are a gathering of people who feel loss communally —  even when we didn’t know a person as well as another student or staff member did. Death teaches us that learning is truly about life and not about passing tests. It reminds us that what people take away from those we memorialize in our stories, eulogies, and music is emotional in tenor and social in context. As tears flow we push aside our hurried lives of covering content to connect with each other. We are reminded that what we think is the most important work we do may actually be the least important. That’s why in my district as we build our school communities for learners and learning, we prioritize building relationships first before we focus on creating relevance and rigor in the work our young people accomplish.

Relationships are foundational to all we do as educators. Last Sunday, Eric’s students described why he made a difference in their lives first as a caring adult and then as a music teacher. Who he was as a person mattered the most to them as they turned memories into narratives about their teacher.

“He would make waffles for our class at the end of the semester and when he found out I was gluten-free he made special waffles for me.”

“He always said hello in the hallways. If he knew you he wouldn’t just greet you by your first name. He always used your first and last name.”

“He would smile at everyone. He would wave at every one of us when he passed us in the halls.”

“When I lost my father, he helped me so much. He spent time with me to support me through that.”

“He was surprised that despite my outgoing personality, I was terrified to sing on stage. He worked with me to overcome that. Just before he died, I tried out for a solo and even though I knew I wouldn’t get it, I like that he got to see me do that.”

“He was funny. He wore funny ties and suits. He made class fun.”

“I learned so much from him and I will take those lessons with me for the rest of my life.”

“He inspired me to be a better singer but, most importantly, he inspired me to be a better person.”

Eric was one of those teachers who engaged the world around him through his love of hiking, apples, music, and people. As the winter concert service planned and shared by his young musicians and community peers unfolded last Sunday, we participated in a well-designed last lesson plan crafted carefully and purposefully by Eric.

He wasn’t physically on stage for his last concert but he was there in spirit and everyone had one more chance to participate in learning from and with Eric.

Teachers are lost but their teaching never dies, and in this there is immortality. When these children are old many of them will continue to recall what this man gave them at that vulnerable moment in their lives. Some, on their path to old age, will become teachers themselves, multiplying Eric and the work he did.

His music will play on.

Beyond the Sky: Imagine That!

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Beyond the Sky … 

When kids get passionate about learning and they ask me to join them, I have to say yes. Even at 7 am on a Saturday morning.

It’s why I found myself getting up early to head off to a local park on a misty morning last June. When I arrived, the kids, a team of middle schoolers, were already there along with their teachers, the school principal, their parents, the media, and … me.

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Why? Because two eighth-grade girls decided they wanted to fly a high altitude balloon to the edge of the atmosphere. They’d enlisted adults, their teachers, and other interested students in their project. We were all gathered to see what would come of this year-long project.

I watched with my camera, capturing video and photos, as they worked to put all the final pieces together; the go-pro camera, an arduino-driven tracking system, and the balloon. They checked their tracker app on their cell phones and installed it on my phone, too.  Finally, after their final check, they called 4 different air traffic control centers from Charlottesville to DC.

balloon-prep

We adults stood back and watched the kids position the balloon and let it go.  It rose, and cheers went up. Then, in silence, it glided back to earth. Shoulders drooped a bit but the kids got to work. They figured out what parts of the apparatus could be ditched to lower the balloons weight and then they let it go again … this time it rose and rose –gliding out of sight and we all cheered.

balloon-tracker-app

They checked their cell phone tracking apps over the weekend and into the early days of the week. These modern-day rocket kids began to wonder if their balloon had wandered too far afield and all their work was now lost. Then – an alert triggered. When the call came to central office that they were off to collect their balloon, we all cheered again. Our balloon chasers found it on the other side of Lake Anna , more than fifty miles away, and secured permission from a farmer to retrieve it out of a wood-lined pasture. Guess what?

 

balloonsky

The go pro footage showed Mission Accomplished!

 

 

Who wouldn’t want this kind of learning passion for all kids? As superintendent I find my own passion in the work I do comes from helping educators create multiple pathways to learning so that all our young people find their way to pursuing hopes and dreams, to have as many choices as possible when they move into adulthood, and to gain an equity of access to rich, experiential, creative work that educates them for life, not school.

droneclubI think Julian captures this vision in his passion for making and flying drones – and through what he’s learned as he’s participated in the maker movement that brings passion alive in young people in our schools today. What started as an isolated passion in a library maker space while making drones took Julian one day into the school cafeteria with his drones to see who else might be interested. As a result of Julian’s leadership, he’s now surrounded by a score of middle and high school student who share his interest.

That passion also resides in Ayoade, a high school senior, who believes that engineering is fun and a great career choice.  However, Ayoade believed that many young girls might not know that. So as a sophomore she took a startup idea to her engineering teacher who said, “why not?” Abridge-girlss a result, she became a social entrepreneur, creating not just a bridge-building camp for middle school girls but one in which participants give back to our community by creating bridges that make our local walking trails accessible.

 

courtney1And, there’s Courtney who isn’t just a fabulous actress, choreographer, and dancer in her school’s drama program but also a script writer who just had her own award-winning, one act play performed in state competition. What makes Courtney’s work unique? She believes that arts are a path to teaching communities about issues of social justice and her most recent script, Necessary Trouble (taken from a speech quote by Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis) pushes audiences to engage in discussion about what rights mean to students who find themselves on different sides of a civil rights issue.

Josh1.jpgFinally, there is Josh, a tenth-grader who speaks to his tough life experiences –foster parenting, many transitions in homes and schools, and his challenges with the greatest frankness. He has shared on the national stage how engaged, hands-on, project-based learning, along with support from his Team 19 peers, teachers, and his principal has changed his attitude about high school – going from a kid who thought he might not graduate when he entered high school to now dreaming of becoming a tech engineer. You might ask so how did Josh get to a White House podium? Last year, he participated in a focus group at his high school led by a member of Student Voice and Josh’s voice, filled with passion and authenticity, was noticed by the facilitator leading to an invitation to speak at the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools.

These stories don’t happen by chance. They happen when educators see the future as adjacent to the possibilities we build inside our schools today. Courtney, Ayoade, Josh, Julian, and the balloon kids represent every child inside our schools – classrooms filled with poets, engineers, artists, nurses, programmers – and yes, I hope, future teachers, principals, and maybe a superintendent or two.

We don’t find our children’s passions or talents when they sit in rows facing a dominant teaching wall, listening hour after hour, day after day, year after year, taking test after test to prove what they know-  but with little chance to show us what they can do.  Yet, when our young people get hooked on learning and take that passion into life along with a sense of personal agency, their voices will influence first their schools, and then their communities, the nation, and the world.

Unleashing the potential of our young people so they can build agency as learners and find their voices through experiences that plumb their passions means the sky is no longer the limit. Beyond the sky becomes possible.

Imagine that.

Searching for Frankl’s Meaning: The Decent and the Principled, How we Define Who We Are as Individuals, Communities, a Nation

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In life, everyone experiences regrets.

Daniel Pink reported a study on what constitutes the greatest source of regrets that we Americans experience- loves lost or perhaps never found, career disappointments or paths not chosen, in-actions rather than actions taken. A sense of regret must be one of those conceptual understandings that differentiates us from our vertebrate relatives. In a distant blog post, Daniel Pink, @danielpink, asked us to share with him our regrets so he could continue to unfold the story of what we regret and how we mitigate and avoid regret in life.

I was taken mostly with his description of how he makes decisions in life — and what he uses to test those decisions ethically. Pink spoke to imagining a point of view of himself at 90 and looking back on a decision. Then, Pink invoked the memory of Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who said “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” If you’ve not read Frankl, it’s well worth the time. In his reflections he documented what he used mentally to survive concentration camps in WWII even as he experienced the loss of those around him, including his entire family except for one sister.

Frankl began his life in a concentration camp as the psychiatrist he had been before incarceration. He ended WWII in such a camp as a slave-laborer. It’s a difficult read to experience such a world of hatred through his eloquent and poignant words. It’s an important read to experience his words as he describes finding meaning in life by holding on to love as a driving force to sustain the spiritual domain of who he was in the most existential of moments in the camps.

Frankl said that he had come to the conclusion that only two races of “men” really exist- “the decent and the unprincipled.” In thinking about the meaning of freedom, he recommended that in addition to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast that we add a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

I never underestimate the potential for any nation to become a Nazi Germany. If the decent majority abdicates responsibility to the tyranny of an unprincipled minority, we give up liberty. When Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”, he spoke to the critical nature of education as an essential barrier to the loss of freedom. He understood that citizens who are ignorant cede their freedom to tyranny- to the unprincipled.

Over a lifetime, I’ve learned that education is so much more than stocking the brain with knowledge and information. While education’s certainly about knowledge, it’s also about how we regard, honor, model, and teach the value of decency- in our classrooms, our homes, and in our communities. Every time we step away from our own responsibility to ensure that a tyrannical minority does not abuse members of our community, we step away from our own liberty as well. And, when a tyrannical minority becomes a majority, then a nation’s sliding down that slippery slope towards the unprincipled behaviors of a Nazi Germany in which the decent -those who abdicated responsibility by doing nothing and those who suffered because of it- lost their liberty, loves, and lives.

Teaching decency isn’t about putting words in a vision, mission or core values statement, adding it to a curriculum, or adopting a program to teach it. Decency is about what we do, what we say, what we ignore, what we walk away from. It’s our words in a teachers’ lounge or behind the closed doors of our homes that become acceptable in the halls, on the playgrounds, and across the airwaves of our lives. It’s in our own biases towards people as a group that becomes our actions towards individuals.

When we allow others- young people or adults- to disparage, name-call, victimize others for any reason, we assume a role in Frankl’s “race” of the unprincipled, rather than that of the decent. Those kinds of words, in-actions, and actions, I believe, become the regrets, not just of ourselves as individuals or as a community, but also the ultimate regrets of a nation that’s lost civility, community, and care for its own.

How do you think we are doing?

  • first published in Edurati Review as Decent or Unprincipled: How We Define Who We Are as Individuals, Communities, a Nation 3/15/2013

A New Year. Multi-Tasking. My Peach Cobbler. Connections. Hidden Figures.

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A New Year.

The opening of a school year creates the same fluttering inside me as occurred on the first day of the first year I attended school. I remember that year, first grade because there was no kindergarten, helping my mother pack my metal lunch box, obsessively snapping a 3-ring binder filled with fresh Blue Horse lined paper, and filling a wooden pencil case with sharpened #2 pencils. The scent of learning has changed but tonight I feel the same tension created by a desire to sustain both the slower pace of summer balanced with the pull to again experience a first day of school. Today in the grocery store, the day before all the teachers return to schools in my district, I was asked if I was ready for a new school year. I replied, “Of course. School just isn’t school without kids and teachers in the building.” Summer is beautiful. School is even more so.

pencils

writing8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Multi-tasking.

As I consider this next first day of school, a precursor first day with all teachers walking through our doors a week ahead of our young people, I am checking my email on the phone, writing this post on my laptop, and watching a semi-final 1500 meter women’s race. It’s hard to even remember the first days before mobile devices – days when everything was written out longhand, when the TV was still a small box catching signals from an antenna perched on the roof’s ridge, and the landline phone hung on the kitchen wall, its compressed cord tethering me to a limited area in the room. Some friends express nostalgia for those days but I don’t think many would give up their microwaves, on demand digital television, smart devices, or online apps even as we sometimes yearn for a slower pace and fewer intrusions from the digital world. At new teacher academy last week almost no hands went up from 140+ new teachers when I asked them if they could identify a reel film case – even fewer than just a year ago. Soon there will be no educators left in schools who can remember threading film through a projector – maybe just a few middle aged educators, once students who watched long ago teachers struggling to show documentary films found in film cans such as this.

film container

My Peach Cobbler.

Earlier this evening, I peeled a large bag of peaches thinking I would make my 95 year-old-mother’s peach cobbler recipe. I pulled the index card written in her flowing script from an old tin recipe box given to me before I left for college. It lives on a shelf in an even more ancient pie safe in my kitchen. Self-rising flour? None of that in my cannisters  so I immediately googled “how to make self-rising flour” and the answer popped up. Two hours later I slid the cobbler out of the oven. Old tech. New tech. Tools matter. Problem-solving usually depends upon them.

peaches.jpg

Connections.

Time is more precious than gold. I think of the countless hours of practice, practice, practice in which Olympic athletes engage as I watch a British male gymnast take the lead with a tenth of a point. Many in the audience film him on floor exercises with their phones. It won’t be long before footage is posted in some version of YouTube, GIFs, or Vines even as the IOC works to get unauthorized images and footage taken down.  At the same time, I watch my twitter feed light up with retweets of an article delineating why homework is not a particularly good use of time, especially in elementary school. People’s beliefs drive opinions for and against homework (most RTs are against.) I read comments about homework building self discipline and rebuttals from those who see it as a compliance-driven exercise. It’s a lively conversation but civil. I like that. Educators are in general a very polite group even as they exchange perspectives. They tend to listen. They ask questions. They share. Today these connected educators make sense of a topic which continues to create conflict among teaching peers, parents, and students old enough to hold an opinion. The world is connected as it has never before been. Communication is not limited to face-to-face communities. Instead, communication happens everywhere all the time – it’s a global network unlike anything ever seen before in human history.

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 Hidden Figures. (The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race)

Tonight I am inspired by Olympic athletes.  Most of all though, I am inspired by stories of young black women who in the 1940s and 50s became “human computers in skirts” for NASA. Who knew? Men went into space because of these women’s calculations. It’s a story worth knowing, sharing, and celebrating even as we educators bemoan the math performance gaps of today. I am reminded that we choose to define and limit the possibilities of what children are capable of accomplishing.  The narrative of Kathryn Johnson challenges us to do better by at-risk children in today’s classrooms. We have come a long way since the days of the segregated world she experienced in Hampton, Virginia. We still have work to do.

 

Getting to Yes

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Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.

waltonwork

When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.

 

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Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

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Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

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Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.

 

Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

Henley gym3

Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.

 

And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.

treehouse.jpg

There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

Winter Reflections on Time , Technology, Teaching, and Star Trek

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A wake up call from a changing workforce ..

film containerThis past August , I pulled 4–5 old tech items out of a bag at our New Teacher Academy as part of a welcome message to educators joining our learning community.

I really shouldn’t have been startled when a first-year teacher born in 1993 didn’t recognize a film reel canister. The tech I took for granted as a young teacher had long since vanished by the time he was born.

This younger generation who just started teaching this school year laughed with me as I held high my VHS tape,(the demise of VHS sales)  a Walkman disc-player (how the iPod shifted a market), and an old Blockbuster card (for more on how Blockbuster failed to have vision to see Netflix coming) I’d found squirreled away in my now 28-year old son’s vacant bedroom. Then,  I asked one young teacher to open a case for a floppy disk.  When he struggled with that task, I realized we had moved past my decades-long educational career in a few moments of pulling old tech from a canvas bag.

The tools of the relatively recent past were museum artifacts to many in the room. I couldn’t even begin to explain the intricacies of my struggle to thread a film reel leader through the projector necessary to show Donald in Math Magic Land to an impatient audience of children in 1978.

My experience sharing old tech with novice teachers reminded me of a late night twitter exchange with an English teacher sharing his frustration in trying to describe a pocket watch to kids reading a classic set in the 1800s.

It’s hard to make sense of tools that are no longer relevant to the world our young learners live in and increasingly a new generation of educators …

Technology transitions have always seemed a bit magical as generations of new tools have made their way into schools. It seemed that one day the smell of mimeograph fluid permeated the air in the teachers’ work room where I once worked as a first year teacher and the next day I found myself watching paper copies shoot out of a photocopier; a transition from creating purple duplicator stencils to filling paper trays in the new “Xerox” machine.

As young baby boomer educators we marveled when first introduced to Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 computers that ran on cassette tape players.

And when  Jobs’ and Wozniak’s Apple II computers were introduced in schools, the potential in the beige cases wowed us just as the challenge of learning to use this new tool intimidated us. I didn’t know then that we couldn’t begin to envision the even more complex changes still to come:

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20 ?”HELLO WORLD”

In Slow Motion: From Pencils to Word Processors ….

pencilsWe moved forward into the 21st century but the 20th century learning model still dominated, reinforced by the school standardization movement embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Even though tech tools changed workplaces, homes, and entertainment, not much changed in mainstream education. The pencil remained our 1:1 device of choice. Interactive White Boards replaced the chalk board but as a tool used primarily by teachers. Laptop carts replaced more primitive desktop labs but mostly were used as a tool of consumption not production. LCD projectors replaced overhead projectors and the strange and wonderful science fiction of the Internet, laptops, and mobile devices jumped off the screen from Star Trek into mainstream America.

“every now and then a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…” Steve Jobs, 2007

As technology innovation accelerated, the world became accessible and transportable; first as Blackberries in the pockets of business people and then pretty much around the globe everyone owned a smart phone. Tech communication accelerated — social media, YouTube, an app for everything. Some in K-12 and higher education began not just talking about virtual learning but also making it happen. 1:1 initiatives put laptops in the hands of all learners in some school districts. The advent of Bring Your Own Device allowed kids to connect at school with personally owned tech. Drives became thumb-sized storehouses. Then, the portable thumb became the ubiquitous cloud.

techkidNow consider some teachers and professors who remain in front of the class, lecturing from the dominant teaching walls. Phones ring in backpacks. Text messages are sent under desks. Facebook is open on screens (if allowed). Boredom today shifts learners of all ages from daydreaming, fidgeting and staring into space to actively transporting out of class with their own personal devices. Sound, video and text move them elsewhere at what can seem like Star Trek Warp Speed.

The teacher of the ’80s who once was challenged to compete with Sesame Street is now  today’s educator challenged with holding attention in the face of online gaming, instant social connectivity, goofy cat YT videos, and millions of apps. Kids are the most powered-up generation that the world has ever seen and the tech keeps coming.

What does it all mean when it comes to learning?

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

It’s good news for our profession that young people value being together as learners and spending time with adults who care about them and offer interesting and relevant paths to learning. Kids today still like stories, hands-on activities, projects, music, movement, games, discussions, and challenging collaborative work that speaks to questions and curiosity — the pedagogical basics of excellent teaching across time.

However, when bored from being seated and expected to listen for far too long, learners drift as they/we always have. Today their choices of drift often take them to tech that provides different paths to dreaming than the doodling or staring out the window of their parents’ generation. The upside is that teachers still matter to kids even as they appreciate being active learners in our classrooms using the high-tech we provide or they bring – along with books, uni-fix cubes, microscopes, paintbrushes and so on.

Technology today gives learners the world.

writing8Tech tools create access. Tech tools provide new avenues for communication. Tech tools allow research to occur anywhere, anytime. Tech tools extend the act of creating. Tech learning tools of this century are as exciting to them as the more primitive technologies of the 20th century were to their parents.

The possibilities of what learners can do today as they search, connect, communicate and make are endless. The potential of technologies to power up learning sets the stage for teachers to create opportunities that take advantage of resources in ways that were science fiction until recently.

Tech tools do not replace people in kids’ lives.

IMG_4750Yet… tech tools don’t check eyes for understanding. Tech tools don’t respond with emotion to a kid sharing a tough situation or experiencing the sheer joy of learning something new. Tech tools don’t design for learning that excites and engages and moves with the flow of a community of learners.

Teachers do all those things and so much more when they go back go the roots of engaging pedagogy.

Relationships, Learning Agency, and Opportunities Matter …

So, every year when I greet new teachers, the important words are about relationships, being open to learning, sustaining efficacy, and challenging learners with access to the best learning experiences we can offer.

Today on almost New Year’s Eve 2015, I go back to where I began the 2015-16 school year  —purposefully  pulling old tech out of a canvas bag as a starting point to engage new teachers who also are still learners despite their role change. Why? Because a wise teacher told me before I started my first day teaching, “your job is to get kids excited about learning. Do that the first day — and every day after and kids will love learning in your class.”

Learning tools, whether high or low tech, are no more or less important than when I started teaching. They augment our teaching and our students’ learning. No matter their computing speed, the fastest devices today do not replace teachers who set up opportunities for powerful learning and community-building each day, even as they grow and develop their own expertise over their careers.

Tools change over time. The best teachers do as well. That was my message to new teachers in August 2015 and the one I reflect on as we enter 2016.

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The Power of Image and Lifelong Learning

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Cameras interest me —

the science of converting the real into image and the art of seeing image in the real.

My grandfather loved cameras.. he claimed that he once had taken pictures for a newspaper but I never believed him. But — he did have boxes and boxes of stained, brittle, and faded black and white or yellowed snapshots stuffed in crannies and drawers throughout his well-used farm house.

My grandfather, a maker (1889–1983)

I didn’t realize that photography might have meant more to him than simple documentation of family until I found photos he’d made of rocket launches at Cape Canaveral and late 60’s lunar walks. After he died, I sat on the floor cradling his photos. Why would this man who was born in the days of horse-drawn vehicles be so taken with space flight?

Man on the Moon by C.S. Ridge (1969 taken on his 12″ b&w TV set

Today I understand that the brain is a living camera, taking its own snapshots and creating portrait, landscape, and still life images of the world in which we live. Our physical cameras serve as technology facilitators of our neural efforts to remember images that fade over time. As I look back through my own photo binders, I touch older images of my mother as a young woman in a halter top. My father, the athlete swinging a driver over his right shoulder. My grandfather seated on his favorite horse, Rocket.

In my own aging world, I have long abandoned my manual SLR and shifted to using my iPh*ne as my camera. My photos reside in its memory and on Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram. Today, my digital images don’t fade away, but I do sometimes miss the capability to shift printed images in my hand and reminisce about a trip to Ireland or my son’s college graduation. It’s why I occasionally lay old photos out on the coffee table because sometimes I like to revisit the “low tech” memories of my own youth even as I hunt in tiers of computer files for recent digital images I want to look at on this night.

Times change. Technology changes. But even in my own nostalgia, I know my grandfather would have loved a phone with a camera built into it. He would have been amazed and delighted at the wonder of it all, this technology we take for granted at our fingertips today.  He was infatuated with how things work and with the scientific advances during his long life.

I think he would be disappointed that we don’t attend enough to the technology advances in our own lives or simply take for granted what humans a few decades ago could only imagine in a Star Trek episode.

My grandfather only finished eighth grade but he modeled what it means to be a learner for a lifetime – his infatuation with cameras and moon shots reminds me of that every time I touch those images.

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And for more on cool cameras of the past, check out this camera collection…

Cameras of John Kratz at Flickr

To Write is to Make: Reflecting on Paul Oh’s Words

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I read a Medium post yesterday morning, “Writing as Making” written by Paul Oh. Paul is a favorite educator and one of my earliest connectors (@poh) on twitter. He serves as a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project. As always, Paul’s voice causes me to reflect on our work in schools to create authentic experiences that help young people make meaning as they develop a sense of their own voices and agency in their own learning.

This past week as I’ve walked schools newly open for the ’15-16 school year, I’ve observed children of all ages finding paths to learning through writing. I’ve seen children already writing individually or in shared experiences by choice and by design. I’ve noticed children belly writing on the floor, perched on couches, chairs, or standing at tables – most often choosing to not just sit rigidly at a desk when given a choice. I even walked a nature trail on the third day of school with fifth graders who paused on their own to note-make and sketch as they observed cardinal flowers, stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, bag worms, and beetles. I’ve witnessed a variety of writing tools in the hands of children, deliberately chosen depending upon the task at hand.

writing1When children have choices in how they physically orient in space, in the tools they use, and the words they select to represent their own thinking, their writing comes alive through the process of moving words from inside to outside of themselves. Teachers with writing process expertise listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps with children to increase their expressive complexity as they learn to write and write to learn.

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Even as we value the importance of writing, a principal asked this question recently. “Why do our youngest children write so freely and with excitement, yet seem to disengage as writers as they move up through the grades?”

writing5writing14I wonder if we’ve moved so far afield  from why humans became writers in the first place that we’ve forgotten that writing was invented as a timeless communication tool for making and sharing truth, ideas, beauty, stories … rhyme.

Today in our standardized world of education, test prep writing work and writing tests contrive a kind of writing that lacks purpose and meaning to children. In such a world, children who begin school as curious language learners lose their earliest sense of voice when made to over and over practice writing designed to teach them to perform well on tests.

Yet, we all know teachers with expertise who intensively study how to facilitate writing15children to develop more complex and authentic writing. They know writing begins inside a person as a reflective exploration of experiences, interests, and questions. They believe writing can be joyful for children and adults alike. They value that children have something important to say and share with others – from their classmates to the world outside their school doors. Such teachers listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps to increase children’s expressive complexity in using language as they learn to write and write to learn in a variety of forms of media – including digital connectors.

writing19This morning, reflecting on the best of writing teachers I’ve known across decades brought me back to Paul’s premise of “writing as making.” And, his words led me to reflect on the question of “why do we humans write?”

Here’s my response with a twist on his post.

Writing is Making .. It’s a reflection of our capability  to capture the stories, images, and artifacts we make — and it happens today through old tech such as pen and ink and #2 pencils and new tech including phone note-making apps, trans-disciplinary media, and Google everything. Writing helps us makes meaning: who we are, our questions, what challenges us, our accomplishments, our I-searches to inquire, discover, and explore curiosities, and our potential to change ourselves, our communities, the world. Writing makes our ideas, information, and imagination come alive for and with others in whatever ways we choose to search, connect, communicate and make.

SPES-japanese-garden

The Pendulum or the Butterfly

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“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Governor George Romney to the Michigan Legislature (9/20/63)

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Floor time project work

What compels us? Pulls us? Catalyzes us? Connects us? Who are we and what are we doing in this profession? In this public sector? In this institution we call school? Why do some of us keep coming back, day after day, year after year, decade after decade until we look back and realize that we accomplished something called a career; even as we watched others go silently into the night across those years?

Why do some of us keep pulling ourselves up and off the floor of the ring to continue on to the next round, in spite of our bruises and the blood we spill?

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

Blog posts, twitter conversations, backchanneling and #chat discussions center the language of out of mainstream educators, parents, and even young people who attempt to answer these questions.  Social media capture the cadence of our conversation with the sometimes painful, sometimes achingly beautiful words and images of a poet even as others of us debate with impassioned, but crisp, political analysis.

We question whether we continue on another swing of our own perverse Newtonian pendulum. Or, is it possible social media lifts the quantum butterfly whose beating wings shift air currents across this nation, creating a learning world that we could never have envisioned in isolation of each other?

Still more of a back channel than a mainstream educational movement, those in the global communication network of educators still mostly watch from the outside as the next sentence is being written by politicians to frame American education.  We know well the drafting, revision, and editing processes in which our communities, our states, and nation now engage. We understand how mainstream media, political positions, new policy, new legislation, budget deliberations, and public hearings give voice to those who attempt to define the some; the all of us. Those with decades in education have seen this before. We know what the swing of the pendulum means inside schools.

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

One, a voice exploring the meaning of words like passion, joy, drive, inspiration, learning, democracy. The other, a voice of market share, big data, votes, rules, money, incentives, brand placement, and rhetoric.

butterfly10clockThe intersection of these voices juxtaposes the choices between the pendulum or the butterfly.

Both objects of motion- one coldly inanimate, the other joyfully alive.

One defined by the freedom to move at will. The other by  external control.

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

In most ways, the current story of public education still represents our commitment to Newtonian physics, the classical mechanization of the factory school pendulum that many still hold dear.

But, in the back channel, our quantum butterfly wings unfold; with each pump of fluid we weigh our potential to take flight. It is here that we consider how learning becomes dynamic, active, deep, and vivid.

So, what will give lift to voices in the back channel? Will it be new legislation, policy, funding, political voices? I think not.

Instead, we must design education anew by generating an ever-increasing number of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning. However, it will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and analytical voices of passion, joy, and drive to create spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these 21st century days.

tower builders

To accomplish such a vision, it must become one of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices. We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses across America’s communities to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration quotient for public education in every community in this nation.

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For if not us, who? If not now, when?

Otherwise, we must accept again the next push of the educational pendulum and forget the potential of the butterfly’s flight.

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 Postscript:

( I wrote the first draft of this post in 2012. I felt then as if public education was in a downward spiral in which learning had become defined as being about passing tests and prepping for tests alone. Few questioned the standardization of every curricula, the loss of inquiry as an anchor for engaged thinking, the subtraction of hands-on learning from the academic curricula, the loss of play, story, and movement by design as a path to learning for our youngest children, and removal of course options from arts to physical education to shop class. Reduction or elimination of libraries, recess, club time, and field trips seemed to go without question.

Today, I am more optimistic that an awakening occurs. When I watch the movie Most Likely to Succeed, read Learn or Die, or listen to educators such as Yong Zhao speak to a different vision for learning, I know something is changing. It’s occurring in the social media conversations of educators everywhere. It’s found in a groundswell of big conference themes that focus on children as learners, not as data points. Even politicians challenge status quo assumptions about elevating national and state standardization expectations over the choices of local communities.

Some might say we are at crossroads in 2015. I see it as more of a chance to define education in this century not just a reform of the last century’s schools but a turning point transformation, indeed a contemporary Renaissance fueled by intersections of trans-disciplinary content with new contexts for learning. Because of our knowledge, tools, and communication networks, we have the potential to create learning opportunities that have never before been available in human history.)