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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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Remembering a Teacher

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This time of year always brings bittersweet memories as I reflect on another school year almost brought to closure – children’s school journeys ending in June’s transition to summer. Most years end with great joy, but I have for many years remembered one that did not.

I still can see tiny faces before me as if it was yesterday despite the passing of decades. They were kindergarteners lacking certainty as to why they were gathered on the rug with me, their principal, a teaching assistant and some of their parents, so early on a Monday morning.

japanese art ace_797213783_1173713953I remember this as the hardest of times when I had to share with these kindergarteners just before the end of the school year that their teacher had died in a car accident. What do you say about a man who chose to teach at age 40? A man with an undergraduate degree in biology from an Ivy League school and a masters in instrumental music from Julliard? A man who chose to go back  and get a second masters in early childhood education because he discovered working in the most important profession on earth was worth a career change even if the money wasn’t great? What do you say to children about a man who taught them to recognize at age five alligator jump rhythms in Blues tunes, to eat with chopsticks, to write down stories about their block cities and to sing and dance every day?

Some parents chose to keep their children home so they could share this sad news. Others wanted their children to hear about it at school. By lunchtime, the whole school community was in mourning. Children had tough questions for staff. Some teachers struggled more than others. Tears flowed off and on all day long. The counselor and I pitched in to give teachers breaks to grieve.

It was one tough day in my profession but as with all days it turned into the next and then the next. Sharp memories of that day faded to soft ones of him with children gathered in front of his rocking chair and a day his mother came to class to share her spinning wheel. I smile now at the memory of him coming to the office for help in the first few months of his career because his kindergarteners had “glued” themselves to the playground equipment and refused to come inside. At the time it was a bit frustrating but reminiscing this evening I can appreciate their creative approach to extending recess time.

japanesegardenThis teacher taught two years of kindergarten classes and student taught in my school before he died. His classes ran more like a design studio than even the typical child-centered kindergarten of that day and time. I think we might label his room today as a maker space – blocks everywhere, easels with paint always at the ready, kitchen and woodworking centers with one of those old-school record players spinning in the background. I never knew when I dropped by on my daily walkabouts whether children would be listening to Mozart or Count Basie. Literacy was embedded in books tied to his and his students’ interests – architecture, counting books, the world’s folktales, nonfiction picture reference books, and anything with a Caldecott Award.

That June he was working hard at becoming a teacher but still experiencing challenges despite far more maturity than the typical novice. I learned from him that transitioning to teaching is not as easy as career switchers sometimes think it will be. Sadly, he never had the chance to become the teacher he planned and wanted to become. I still grieve that chance unfulfilled.

I was reminded of him in a visit this past week to the school where he taught and its courtyard loSPES-japanese-gardenng ago redesigned as an Asian garden in his memory, a tribute from the children in his class.

Those children are all grown now, some with families of their own. Out of the nest years ago, they’ve spread far and wide even though a few have come back home to roost in classrooms of their own. Today, a different generation of children inhabit the school, its playgrounds, and natural areas.

We never know what children take away from us or how long our influence will be sustained within them. Yet, a  former student from this now long-deceased teacher’s class shared with me memories of kindergarten – a tall man reading stories, calling children to look at a block city, and walking with them along the nature trail. She still knew him by name.

Those rich memories of hers are ones I too still cherish about this man, his brief teaching career now lost in time as the summers of life come and go. Yet, in that brief time, he brought learning to children in unique ways I’ve rarely seen since.

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Learning Made Accessible = Life As Opportunity

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The Journey

I have to admit that five years ago, I didn’t, in general, use the terms access, accessible, or accessibility as a frame for beliefs about learning. Of course, as with most educators, I’ve been quick to embed phrases such as learning for all, eliminating achievement gaps, and opening the door for all learners into my language.Today, I’m shifting how I think about what accessible learning for all actually looks like as my district adopts practices of Universal Design for Learning as applicable to all learners.

For example, at a recent start-up edu weekend (#cvilleedu) co-sponsored by my school district, a physically handicapped teen showed up with an idea to create a virtual math keyboard to make inputting math problem responses into devices easier than using a standard keyboard – a solution not just for physically handicapped learners but also the able-bodied. She worked all weekend with a team to build her idea into a working prototype. From young people like her and adults who are helping to integrate UDL as a learning pathway, I’ve come to realize that every time we create a new accessibility pathway to learning, we all have the potential to benefit.

I began to define the concept of access over twenty years ago through the lenses of a close colleague. She was a Jedi Knight for creation of an inclusionary community in the elementary school where we worked together in the early ‘90s. I was the principal. She was the teacher. A summary of what I learned from her? See special education children as – children. Back then, access was a term typically used to talk about special education kids being allowed to participate through adaptive PE or use communicative devices that seemed to function almost like Ouija boards to those of us on the outside looking in at special educators at work.

Soon after I was appointed principal, the entire staff gathered together during a series of school days – every teacher, every teaching assistant, the librarian, the custodian, cafeteria workers, the office staff, and me – to dig deep into what we valued for children in our learning community.  This wasn’t easy to do since we had to cover classes with substitutes and school volunteers. Today, given fiscal restraints and volunteer “rules”, this kind of work likely wouldn’t happen during the school day. I also had to get past that some people in the room questioned why certain “others” were there. It had felt important to me that any one whose work brought them in contact with children be present, so everyone had been asked to participate – every last one of us in the school. If inclusion was something we needed to explore for our children then we needed to begin as seeing every one of us adults as fully included in the discussion.

The Reflective Friend

The special education teacher (a woman whom I came to think of as a close reflective friend) and I had tangled a bit philosophically in a prior year over the “new” concept of neighborhood school placements of high needs special education students. She’d been a teacher of moderately and severely handicapped children in another school. Her class was being disbanded and kids were being placed in neighborhood schools. That didn’t make sense to me. I respected her expertise as a teacher, but worried she didn’t understand the impact of moving high needs students into schools where they would be “one of a kind.”  I think, in hindsight, a lot of us were just scared of children whose needs we didn’t believe we could meet.

After she came to work with me, I came to understand that she was a teacher not just of children, but also the adults with whom she worked. Over the years under her tutelage, I came to realize that each child is “one of a kind” and it’s the labels we assign that filter our capability to see children as individuals.

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Work can happen by orienting differently in space – How do we provide choice and comfort?

I will never forget one of those pivotal, epiphany moments in one of our more heated “vision” sessions that began to shape the concept of access differently for me. We were sitting in the crowded library of the rural elementary school where we worked, trying to incorporate something about the importance of community into our belief statements. This special education teacher stood up and with grace drew a simple circle on a flip chart sheet. She then drew a series of “X’s” inside the circle and then put one “X” outside the circle like this:

the inclusive community

Then, she asked us a question, “ Is Erin* inside our community circle or outside it?” Erin (pseudonym) was “moderately handicapped” according to all the state special education formulas. She was the first child with that label to attend our school and we reluctantly had placed her in a regular early childhood classroom because we couldn’t bear to isolate her from peers. Her voice was garbled, her processing limited, and she lacked all kinds of small and large muscle coordination. Parents of “regular ed” children questioned her presence in “our” school. We were all, I think, a bit afraid of, and for, her. The children seemed to be the only ones who saw her as just another kid in the classroom and, they ultimately became the best teachers of teachers about the value of an inclusionary community as a space in which to learn relationship skills for a lifetime.

But, that question, “ Is Erin inside our community circle or outside it?” stopped us all in our tracks. No one seemed to know what to say. The special education teacher stood there and the wait time stretched out. She was good with wait time. I knew that from watching her at work with kids.  Someone was going to have to fill the void of silence in the library and, I realized,  it would be up to me.

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Children build community naturally when adults believe in them and support that occurring.

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Relationships Matter.

I remember the next few moments as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s now been over twenty years ago. I first acknowledged how hard it was for adults, including me,  to make sense of this new neighborhood model for delivering special education services. Next, I spoke of the challenges of inclusion which we all felt had become another “buzz” word in the educational lexicon. Then, I looked at our soft-spoken custodian, a man of great compassion and wisdom. I saw him kneeling in the hall at the beginning of a school day beside a child, the  one whose “X” was outside the circle, helping her tie her shoe. When he looked the child in the eye, there seemed to be some sort of kinship there.

I thought about the fact that some in the room had questioned the custodian’s presence in our work and imagined he knew that as well. He represented, in some ways, another “X” outside the community circle. I had a mentor who believed that in our work we just have to stand up sometimes and say what we think is right even if we know others might not agree or question the rightness of it. The special education teacher had done so. I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I stood and said something like this, “We all say we value community. As long as I’m here with you, I”ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone is an X inside our community circle. If any of us ever allow any child or adult to be placed outside the circle by our actions, then we can’t call ourselves a community, we are simply a group of people who show up to work every day. If that happens, we need to acknowledge that what we say we believe isn’t what we believe at all.” While it was no great speech, it was a first step in defining access and accessibility differently in my own mind, and within our school community. Because of  that teacher, we took on inclusion as a way of being. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, I’ve come to understand another evolution emerging in my understanding of accessibility. Accessibility applies to everyone, not just the Erins in our lives. We need to stop thinking about the concept of access as isolated to those with federally determined labels – Special Ed, 504, LEP, Title I, gifted, talented. We need to reboot our beliefs about access. And, it’s as true for adults as well as children.

Preferring Collaborative Time

When I recently asked adults with whom I work if they wanted to read a book together on a specific topic, they told  me they wanted options of titles. Some of them wanted a paper book. Others preferred to download a copy to an e-reader. Others didn’t want a book in any form, they wanted to watch a video, participate in a webinar, or take a class. Some of them wanted to get together for face to face discussions, others struggled with doing that. Some wanted to meet in school spaces, others preferred a local watering spot. Adults want accessible learning for themselves. Our kids need that, too.

finding  private reading space in the elementary library

finding private reading space in the elementary library

We adults simply mirror what our kids want and need as learners. They also have different preferences for how they access information. They, too, prefer different tools and different modes of input. They find comfort in different kinds of spaces for learning and in different configurations of interaction. Just like adults they can all benefit from adapting and flexing some of the time to fit into different learning situations. It strengthens them, and us, as learners and community members to do so.

But, if we expect any of us to learn well – regardless of our age – by sitting in the same way, using the same tools, and interacting when and how our teachers choose, then we will get the same learning results we’ve always gotten.  Some will attain great success, some will get by, and some won’t learn much at all. Some will love school, some will tolerate school, and some mostly will hate the experience. We’ll just maintain the faux nature of the Bell curve.

Kids Preferring the Floor

Teachers Preferring the Floor

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However, changing our viewpoint on access to the learning tools, environments, and experiences learners need for learning could, if implemented well, change the game regarding discipline, management, and learning performance by any measure. It also could change the game regarding motivation, drive, curiosity, interest, and commitment. I believe if we were to change the game, think of our jobs as providing universal accessibility, we’d achieve results beyond our wildest dreams; indeed a j-curve of learners who attain great success and love their spaces for learning for a lifetime.

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* a pseudonym

World Peace Game: No Standard Problems – or Solutions

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel by bus to the Pentagon with John Hunter, career teacher and creator of the World Peace Game, twenty-three of the latest crop of 4th grade world peace gamers, 2 teacher-colleagues, the children’s principal, and Chris Farina, documentary film maker of “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Accomplishments.”

The kids were invited guests of the Office of The Secretary of Defense and they arrived at school early that morning with dossiers in hand containing their white papers and questions on the critical issues of the world. After the children settled into seats on the bus, John chatted with me for a few minutes about the trip, visiting some education topics near and dear to our district’s work to ensure all young people engage in work that engages, challenges, and provides choice and opportunity to pursue passions and interests. John shared first how the children prepared for the trip and his philosophy for “unfettering” their learning.

“Each child was expected to do extensive research and develop a white paper and questions about countries they represented so that they could engage intelligently with adult policy experts on topics of interest. They are people – they are young people -in the learning adventure, their uniqueness appears; there’s no separation or line of authority they aren’t afraid to broach when asking questions and seeking information. When we take the fetters off and the false boundary lines and parameters , they have an unfettered imagination and ability and when given the chance in their own young, youthful way they can develop things that we adults in our staid and traditional way might not even see. “

John Hunter’s been in a Ted Talk – generated international limelight for the last two years for a couple of reasons. First, he represents for all educators the best of creative genius and fabulous facilitation of learning among young people. John also happened to be in the right place at the right time when Chris was looking for a film to make. John is extraordinary, no question about it. He’s the best of ambassadors for extraordinary educators who create amazing learning spaces for children in public schools everywhere. He’s quietly reflective and a wise practitioner of the art and science of teaching. But, when he speaks, others can’t help but listen.  I sometimes say that all teachers who love to teach, love to learn, and value the capabilities of all young people have a bit of John Hunter in them.

“Children show us what they can do when we remove anything from in front of them that might get in their way as people. They come to us as experts in something already. We need to use those strengths and build on those strengths.”

The daylong trip to the Pentagon makes for an interesting story about the current crop of world peace game fourth grader gamers who engaged with twenty-five high level staffers from generals to top policy makers. They even had a chance to chat about global warming, office phones, and other topics of interest for almost half an hour with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I’m not sure anyone else got that kind of time from him that day, but the children did.  Senior policymakers in the Under Secretary’s departments engaged in dialogue with the fourth graders about world issues from the current problems generated by the conflict between Israel and Iran, China’s relationship with Tibet, Yemen’s terrorists’ camps, Mexican drug wars along our border, and, the mistreatment of Syrian people by Bashir al-Assad. They then participated in a simulated press conference in the Pentagon Press Room with Press Secretary George Little.

Not much of what these children demonstrated in their learning could, or would, be assessed on the typical standardized tests they take each spring. John has thought a lot about assessment over the years and what it really means in the big scheme of lifelong learning. He sees a much bigger picture than the current reality educators face today.

“We assess for a unit, a day, a lesson, a week, a month, a year. Interestingly enough, what’s been a revelation to me of recent is that over the 35 years I’ve taught, I’m finding kids are coming back through social media from ten or twenty years ago and talking  about something they learned years ago and saying ‘you said that and I’ve been able to use that in my life.’ What an amazing thing that we educators seem to reach through time – and life becomes the assessment. Perhaps we need to start to open our assessment window beyond our classroom and look at assessment as lifelong.”

It was a wonderful day for me to observe what happens when children have worked with a teacher who has total confidence in their capability (and, no they aren’t all “gifted” by label requirements although no one who watches them can doubt their giftedness as a team of learners) and sets high expectations for a kind of creative and critical thinking work that cannot be measured with 4 choices- one correct response. For over thirty years across multiple school districts, school levels, and demographics, John’s “kids” have consistently performed in ways that transcend the 20th century paradigm for achievement and the accountability outcomes defined for today’s public school learners.

You see, John Hunter is a dreamer. He’s dreamed of no minimums for learning. He’s dreamed of children who will grow up to change the world. He’s dreamed of unlimited opportunities for children who otherwise would be limited by desks in rows and a teacher lecturing them about factoid trivia that represent the unimaginative, de-contextualized instruction to which so many children have been subjected for decades. John encourages children to be imaginative, playful, and passionate about learning. Thus, when they visited the Pentagon, they put themselves on equal footing with adults, a partnership of respectful learning.

“You see the video monitors on the bus. One of the children asked when we got on the bus this morning if we were going to watch a movie. One of the other children said, ‘no, the movie’s in your mind today’… what a great thing that their imagination is their canvas, not some Madison Avenue firm developing their imagination for them…”

John is a believer in the power and voice of children as learners. He sees his job as:

“planting the seed of possibilities in children and connecting them to the larger vision of our country and world… I don’t know the answers to give them. It becomes an adventure for everyone in the classroom everyday. They have to develop their own questions … what they need to know, so they can figure out what other things they need to know.”

Pentagon officials who didn’t know the story of John’s work asked several times if these children were “from private schools.” I proudly told them that these were children from a regular public school and that many more teachers and children just like them were back in schools in our district. They were surprised by the seriousness of the children’s pointed questions, and their public school education.

As one chief policymaker said, “you were fierce in asking senior leaders some very important and tough questions.” It struck all of us that John’s created an environment where children don’t see a hierarchy in their work with their teacher and their classmates. The Pentagon officials considered whether they need to attend less to protocols that block them from challenging each other. It’s a lesson for educators everywhere who dream of children who think independently about challenging problems, not ones looking to the teacher to tell them what to do.

At the end of the day, the children engaged in what’s known as a “hotwash” exercise – one used by Pentagon officials to debrief their own work.  The kids shared feedback for the adult staffers, pulling philosophies from their reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and their own experiences,  “think forward; don’t be afraid to change your plans if what you’re doing isn’t working; remember, war isn’t the answer.”

The staffers, in turn shared what they thought we should hear. Many of them noted that it had been a “favorite day at the Pentagon; I am inspired by these fourth graders; I am reminded of a teacher who inspired me when I was a child….”

Then one policymaker said something which made me stop and think about the accountability movement left over from the 20th century to which the nation’s children are subjected each day.  “We use creativity and imagination every day to solve problems around the world.. we need more people in America who can do what you are doing in your class….”

I’m struck after visiting the Pentagon with twenty-three 4th graders and John Hunter  that there are no standard problems in today’s world- global warming, water problems, economic crises, political differences, war – and no standard solutions. Yet, we educators spend our time teaching kids to pass standardized tests of standardized objectives found inside standardized programs and curricula that demand no creativity or imagination to generate solutions.

Maybe the Department of Education should talk to the Pentagon.

It All Matters

Analytical Creativity in Progress

Creative Analytics in Progress


Inspiration Matters.

 

 

Every time I discover inspired learners in a school both the vibrancy of their projects and interest in their work reflect congruence with their educators’ value for passion-driven learning. No two spaces are quite the same and the learners’ work doesn’t follow formula.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting upon the inversely proportional relationship between passion for learning and standardization in schools. It’s pretty simple to observe as passion increases standardization decreases and vice versa.  We live in a time in which outcome metrics, fidelity to replication, and scalability of “evidence-based programs” are supposed to lead to growth in achievement as measured with precision by batteries of “objective” tests. This approach defines the education game of the day in almost every public school in this country – but not everywhere.

And Engaged in Serious Play

A Gathering of Educators Hard at Work

 

Teachers matter.

 

 

Despite standardization pressures, creativity and passion still grow and thrive in some learning spaces. Some of these creative educators, one-offs in their schools, live in an underground, often virtual, network where they draw upon each other to sustain each other’s vital signs as teachers. But, what a loss to our profession when these creative educators must live as independent contractors in their schools, never fully realizing the power of learning when an entire staff of educators is on a passion-driven mission.

Educator-Centered Principal Leadership
Learner-centered Principal Leadership

 

 

Leadership matters.

 

 

Others are fortunate members of communities where principals support and facilitate the work of teachers and learners as creators, designers, builders, developers, and inventors. Here, teachers become master artists at work in schools that are more like studios than factories. Their learners engage in learning how to learn through deep, engaging, interesting work rather than the drudgery of one too many worksheets or multiple-choice tests. Such models are few in number but they do exist in both poor and affluent communities. And, that tells me we all have the potential to realize rather than deny our dreams for contemporary learning spaces where every child can find their interest and passion niche as a learner.

foster intensity at any age

The interests of engaged learners


The work matters.

 

 

 

Educators in some learning spaces are choosing to transition toward less standardization. They reflect creative work in progress. I’ve observed a school transform from mostly blank walls to one that’s full of life, light, and color. The change reminds me of a day spent watching a painter at work along the Seine. She began with a perfect, white canvas that was altered with daubs of colour into a rich landscape teeming with life.  She stayed with this project for hours, refining each stroke of the brush to catch the light, the shadow, a child kicking a ball, lovers reclined on the river’s bank. I marveled at the passion and commitment it took to sustain such attention to her work, despite distractions all around her.

The Window as Learning Wall

The Foyer as Library


Learning Spaces Matter.

 

exercise ball as seat
lying and standing work spaces

 

Seating under table, in chairs, on floor

Recently, I walked a once-perfectly tidy school that’s in transition. I noticed signs of change in children’s drawings and writing on glass windows in the library a study in mirror writing. Another day, I returned to find children sprawled on a classroom floor working away on a project to redesign their room – a study in concentration. In another school, the librarian painted a still life with plants, benches, and tables onto the once-blank foyer outside her library. A few weeks later, the still life was landscaped with children, 2nd and 4th graders, reading together under the tables, on benches, and gathered together on the floor a study in multi-age learning.

the messiness of design think described by principals

Teachers in a third school “walk” their classes together discussing the dual importance of a safe and comfortable space as prerequisite to challenging learners to engage in rigorous, creative, and critical thinking/doing work. To shift toward multi-dimensional learning work, educators have to work hard to effect changes in practice. It demands a concomitant shift from the dominant use of the frontal teaching wall to systemic use of multi-dimensional spaces inside and out of the classroom. Design changes. Teaching changes. Work changes.

Team work as life skill

Collaborative experiences matter

Community of multi-age reading buddies

 

 

 

 

The distance between the painter at work on the banks of the Seine and educators at work adding color and life to their world isn’t so far really. Artists seek out each other routinely in formal and informal ways to share their work, “steal” ideas from each other, reflect on changes in technique, ask questions, and push the boundaries of their art.  Creative teachers connect for many of the same reasons.

the science of passion

 

the art of passion


Passion matters.

I want to learn.. passion

When teachers create, adopt, and adapt their work, they function similarly to artists. They share and learn from each other. Like artists, they fuel themselves with their own passion and, in doing so, create a contagion of creativity (borrowed from @irasocol) that fuels learning passion among the young people they serve. They’re not cookie-cutter teachers and they look for every opportunity to design away from cookie cutter learning work.  It’s routine for their children to ask questions, pursue interests, wonder and search, make meaning, create original responses, and amplify knowledge into deep understanding and growth as a learner. Together, educators and young people alike dream learning that’s writ large through passion, not writ small through standardization.

Principals in the Learning Trenches

Principals who Embrace Passion for Learning

 

Permission matters.

 

 

 

If I could gift every school with the opportunity to dream big, I would start with restoration of passion. From recent conversations with teachers collectively engaged in design thinking, I’ve found one common theme emerging. Educators need support of leaders who’re not afraid when teachers take necessary risks in pursuit of learning as they change the spaces, change the learning, and change the tools. Each step of the way, they diverge along different pathways just as artists also do.

In giving up the safety of mass standardization, they simultaneously sustain an in-common vision that young people can accomplish learning beyond our wildest dreams when they’re inspired, passionate, and interested in the work they do.

It works for educators. It works for those they serve.

Images: Albemarle County Public Schools