Reflections: on life, learning, and finding a metric for meaning

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As I was packing up my office — the flotsam and jetsam of 13 years as superintendent and 43 years total in school work — someone walked in and commented, “can’t you throw most of this stuff out?” In that moment I held this framed drawing in my hands, a personal going away gift to the principal from an artist as he was rising up to middle school.

I could see as if yesterday the face of the artist, a honey-blonde fifth grader named Ned with strong hands for his age, already a sculptor. I quickly slid the frame into a box and turned away. I couldn’t throw it into the industrial trash barrel that I was neatly filling with my life. I’d already culled remaining boxes of books and wrapped up plaques and my grandfather’s table, shoehorning the office remains into a pickup truck- the last stage in their final journey home.

My son’s already been clear that the artifacts of his family’s life won’t survive his purge one day. It’s the way of millennials- rather than be paid for their family’s china and furniture and paintings, they pay companies to haul it all away.

I haven’t unpacked anything yet. I can’t get motivated to do so with the same excitement I’ve held in every new learning space I’ve inhabited since I became a teacher. My new home office is a tiny corner of a room filled with WWII memorabilia — artifacts of a time when my son’s “greatest generation” grandparents built tanks, B-24 bombers, and yes, the atomic bomb to make the world a safer place for the minorities among us. I’m comfortable in there because I grew up on the stories of America’s goodness and its willing to sacrifice so much for people who lived on another continent. Photos on the wall, fighter plane replicas, and books pay homage to men and women in the family and to those whose lives remained because of the loss of so many Americans on foreign soil.

However, this room is not school and schools have been my garden for a very long time. Being isolated from learners and educators doesn’t feel normal to me and I doubt it ever will. To see school communities grow and thrive affirms my life’s work.

But back to Ned’s picture. The other night, while watching a show about Albert Einstein on NOVA, I was reminded of a sculpture by this fifth grade artist. It was fired clay, glazed brown, and held an uncanny resemblance to the violin-playing philosopher-physicist. I hadn’t thought about it in years but Ned could bring feeling to clay and that was very special. When I reached out to an intervention teacher (also an artist, reading not his forte — nothing new there) and the art teacher they both remembered him well and the gifts he brought to our school community. “Remember he had that Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll? Remember when he graduated from high school he went to one of the best arts schools in the country?”

I wondered what he was doing now and turned of course to Facebook where I found his dad and an album of his first show of sculptures which then led me to Ned’s blog.

I once asked my friend and global educator John Hunter how he knew what children were learning from playing his World Peace Game. He paused and then replied, “Pam, I likely won’t know that for 20 more years.”

It was an insight into what really matters as a measure of success for those of us who are educators. Our life’s work to educate well isn’t measured in a weekly spelling quiz, a 5-paragraph essay, a 60 item state math test, or a final exam performance assessment.

Kids remember little from most of what we measure. What they do remember gets embedded in emotional memories, sensory remembrances, stories that stick, the concepts they use to make sense of knowledge, and… even the feel of clay in their hands.

When our children move past us and remain simply as a remembrance of a picture in a frame, we know their success, and ours vicariously, can only be measured in the realization of their hopes and dreams, their talents seen, their potential made possible. I keep artifacts from children to hold on to that- to the timeless learning that represents who we are as educators and who our learners become across their lifetime.

Ned is an adult artist today and he has important thoughts to share about his frame on life and art. Maybe a good measure of our own success is that we knew he had the soul of an artist and we did everything we could to support that in him.

The Class of 2018: Gen Z

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The end of the school year is always a time for joy as we celebrate our high school graduates who leave us, some ready for adulthood and others a bit tenuous as they take first steps to try out a new freedom of life beyond school. However, as I sat on each graduation stage this year and watched our seniors approach the stage, I could only marvel at what they have accomplished to get to this point in their lives. On their last walk as seniors, some walked forward with ease, poising at the top of the steps before moving forward as their names were called. Others came forward, somewhat shyly as the principal beckoned them to their diplomas. Then there were the dancers who took a brief moment to show the audience a more personal side as they pirouetted to music only they could hear. And, finally, we all paused in respect for teens who came on crutches or in wheelchairs to make their way slowly across the stage.

“Honestly, we are just a tight-knit group. Our graduation isn’t an individual accomplishment, It’s an accomplishment as a whole.”  (A graduate)

All together, regardless of color or ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, socio-economic background or parents’ level of education, these graduates are Generation Z, unique in that they were mostly born in 2000, the Y2K year that many of us feared. They were born in a year when we feared that technology might fail the world, all over a software glitch defined by the use of two- rather than four-digit calendar data. But software engineers fixed the Millennium Bug and turn-of-the-century babies instead bounced into a world that changed rapidly and radically as a result of technological advances. They are the Smart-tech generation, defined by the emergence of apps such as YouTube which began when they were just five. At seven they handled their parents’ newly released iPhones, and by ten years of age, their photos were showing up in Instagram accounts. They’ve tweeted, facebooked, snapchatted, face-timed, and texted their way through high school.

“They approach projects with a level of complexity and they take pride in their work. They actually built a foosball table from scratch and had an almost Jumbotron attached to it.”  (A teacher)

Today they are defined by their speed of communication with anyone and everyone in their circle of friends and beyond as well as a willingness to adopt and adapt devices and apps as quickly as the next new one appears. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the next thing that will come after Netflix or a faster way to share information and images that makes Instagram obsolete, this generation will continue to show their generational counterparts – from baby boomers to Gen X and Y – what it means to be a digital native in its most authentic iteration since the term was coined. As one teen said, “adults need to stop calling us millennials – we are not that at all.”

Gen Z cares. I have heard over and over again from their teachers, principals, and peers that recent graduates of our schools help each other out and are committed to others.

“They are empathetic and truly will go out of their way to support each other – in good and hard times.”  (A teacher)

They care about issues of significance in their community from mental health to the environment to school safety and beyond. They value their devices but they value adults more – teachers and principals alike – especially adults who have invested in developing positive and healthy relationships with them. These teens know the difference between teaching with quality and what they have come to refer to as “phoning it in.”

“They are lively, vibrant, determined leaders with strength and self-awareness. They get excited about being able to impact their community and they look at the world as opportunities.” (A teacher)

They understand the power of authentic community service that benefits others versus inauthentic service that simply gets them a check towards their diploma. They also know their voice matters at the ballot box as well as in making personal choices to walk or not in public support of different political points of view.

“They are varied and talented and passionate about their interests. They are serious about their music, the environment, and sciences.” (A teacher)

The Class of 2018 graduates have also accomplished a great deal in life before they walked across the stage these last few weeks. They already are accomplished musicians and singers online and in the local community venues. They’ve successfully lobbied for a law to support mental health services in schools across Virginia. Students in this cohort have a sense of voice and its evidence in those among them who have blogged, publicly spoken to the School Board and Board of Supervisors, written and performed a play of social activism, tutored peers and younger children, and created websites to give voice to issues of import.They’ve created, invented, and marketed start-up products that represent their entrepreneurial mindset. More of them are bilingual than at any other point in the history of our schools. They’re already on life’s journeys as artists and athletes, musicians and historians, designers and engineers. They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over their collective years in schools for local community charities, individuals with health challenges, and national organizations of for common good such as the American Heart Association.

I am fortunate to have had thirteen years as a superintendent to watch this cohort of recent graduates grow up. I’ve watched them paint and build with blocks in kindergarten, tackle their early reading books in first grade, perform with Orff instruments in fourth grade, and rise up from fifth to sixth grade. They have demonstrated their creativity and critical thinking in Destination Imagination in middle school. I’ve watched them adopt a can do mindset in the AVID program as they head towards being a first generation college student in their families. I’ve observed them running student tech help desks in our libraries and working as auto mechanic interns in our bus garage.

This group of young people has created, made, designed, invented, engineered, and produced learning across all thirteen years of their K-12 education. Our division is a better place today because of the Class of 2018.  You open windows to the future.

 

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Reflections upon …. Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning? by Tony Borash

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Seven years ago, one evening after my colleagues had left the office floor we shared I spent some time thinking about teachers, 27 actually, whom I had experienced as a learner growing up in the rural Low Country of South Carolina. I wondered how many of my teachers it took to inspire me as a learner for life. That evening I drew a diagram of something I labeled as my inspiration ratio – the 1 teacher of 27 who from first to twelfth grade made such a difference in my life that she inspired me to major in science in college and to become a teacher. I didn’t know at the time that Tony Borash (former physics teacher and lead coach at that time) would take the simple diagram I created that evening and move the concept many steps further than I in figuring out the Inspiration Ratio of teachers who influenced his own life learning choices.

His reflections matter to me. Why? Because after more than four decades in education and on the eve of my retirement as a public school superintendent, I believe that the power of our work isn’t measured in the immediacy of the tests we give but in a real and lasting difference in the lives of others, colleagues and students alike. Like Tony, I wonder what it takes to land in the numerator of others’ inspiration ratio, a measure of the difference we make as individuals and as a community.  I also wonder how we might increase our potential to inspire learners and learning just as Tony in his post considers how to increase the percentage of impact in the Inspiration Ratio as close to 100% as possible.

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:

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About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?

You can find Tony in twitter @tborash

When A New Year Begins: Reflections on the Past

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IMG_5579.JPGIt’s interesting that we mark the beginning of a new year just after the moment in time of the longest day of the year and the beginning of winter. I always think of new as being that which occurs in the spring – dandelions and periwinkle poking color up amidst the brown of dead leaves, the soft green gray hues of the forest that come alive in morning mists still chilled by winter, and water still running cold and fast through the woodlands of my hollow.

Yet, I cannot escape that for many decades the sign of a new year that brings a real focus on new to me begins with the school bus that picked me up and dropped me at the end of my family farm’s half-mile long, sugar-sand road in the Low Country. The buses are still yellow, and the seats are still the basic same shape as they were six decades ago. Technology has eliminated the driver having to manually open and close the bus doors and side stop sign. But, kids still make a lot of noise on the bus, fight over the window, and love drivers who smile and take time with them.

102The school bus year begins and ends in summer light. I’ve ridden buses, driven a bus, supervised buses, and been responsible as a school superintendent for the safety of thousands of students riding almost 15,000 miles every day of the school year. In that role, as I have ridden each year on a bus to pick up children early on their first-day morning rides, I’m reminded in each of my school bus years that each new year’s ride brings a wonder at the lives and dreams of thousands and thousands of children who have traveled with me as learners over all the years that I have been in schools – four-plus decades of learners coming and going from classrooms and schools that I have tended in my own work to nurture spring-time into the lives of children, to help them grow from their hopes and dreams in a new year.

In my years in education, I’ve experienced the amazing freedom to create, early on free from the constraints of accountability testing run amok back in those days in the seventy and eighties when kids mostly read and did math and tests were administered for different purposes. Schools were not perfect then. They never have been. But kids in the school where I worked were the first generation of middle schoolers to read novels, not basal readers.

I remember a group of children, a few dad carpenters, and the teacher constructing a subway platform in a room so the classes could vicariously experience a slight feel of New York in a small rural county in Virginia. The teacher, Lynn, understood that children needed context for what they read and she was committed to recreating her classroom as the novel., Slake’s Limbo. The children painted their own graffiti as they listened to the sounds of the subway she had captured on cassette tapes during a visit to the city. It wasn’t New York but with walls covered with black paper, a raised platform overlooking faux rails, and sounds of trains coming and leaving, it was not a classroom of desks and chairs – hard work for Lynn but she always put in her best effort to create a real learning experience for kids.

albumkidsinestuary-e1514763304625.jpgWe took kids on adventures, some who had never seen the ocean or been more than a few miles from the county seat to explore natural caves and quarries and fossil pits in West Virginia and to the ocean to experience marine biology and earth science wading through the waves and marshes and walking the beaches of coastal Virginia. We came back to the school at night to set up a telescope for kids to look at the moon and visible planets, and once even a lunar eclipse. I don’t even know how we paid for the trips other than through a federal grant received when environmental education became a national focus as the nation began to process the impact of air pollution over LA, nuclear accidents and chemical spills in the northeast, and the degradation of forests and erosion of lands all over fifty states.

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We worried less about teaching facts then and there was no teaching to a test because we were living in the inquiry generation of science educators, trained through post-Sputnik era funds to engage learners and create paths for them to solve their way through problems rather than delivering all the answers to them. The goal was to educate all children in science and maybe a few might become physics majors for NASA and a few might even become science educators. In our country school, we were well aware of the differences in circumstances of life and we weren’t that far past segregation in the South and even IDEA  was a newly minted public law (94-142) that brought children to school who had never been in school before. We were very fortunate to be led by administrators who were in the work to support the learning that children would get from us and not simply to manage the school.

In those days, teachers could take time to slow down and have a discussion with kids about topics that were off topic – sometimes because kids just wanted to distract us and sometimes because they simply had great, curious questions and interests worth exploring. I was expected to plan deeply for the units I would teach and in that era worked in a school faculty expected to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework for considering what kids would be able to recall, understand, apply, synthesize, and evaluate in their learning – not just surface but what we label today as deep to transfer learning. We also were expected to design assessments prior to teaching a unit and, in science, those assessments weren’t just paper pencil but also included hands-on responses to physical tasks – after all, it’s hard to demonstrate on paper alone that you can measure, titrate, or use a plant key to evaluate whether a leaf is a sycamore or a tulip poplar.

My co-teaching partner and I ran learning stations in our connected classrooms and the students we served rotated through stations working together and individually on a variety of centers designed to provide different ways to process what they were learning. We thought we were pretty cool because we used a small film loop media station, listening centers, lab activities, and reading areas. One center might involve looking at blood circulation under a microscope in the tail of a goldfish wrapped in soft very wet cotton (for a very few seconds) while another could be a simple lab to extract chlorophyll from leaves. Sometimes, kids had to go somewhere in the building or outdoors to accomplish learning that involved observations and journal writing. Or, perhaps to count how many kids didn’t eat cooked carrots served on the cafeteria line and ask them and record why not.

There was method in our teaching madness and most of the time kids were doing active learning work while my partner and I circulated, sometimes running a demo or teacher-assisted mini-lab that had safety risks or going over important concepts with small groups of kids. Kids were often learning to apply math including early algebra and to read for meaning and write for understanding. Cross-curricular connections were considered important and grade level team meetings focused on how to make more of those happen.

Inquiry meant asking questions, making predictions, testing, experimenting, discussing, and reporting on what was learned. It wasn’t always easy to have kids land in the learning zone we had targeted but we tracked their progress as they tracked their own, recording progress, questions, and their notes in daily learning logs. We actually had time to talk with individual kids as we circulated, to see their excitement when they exhaled into a BTB solution and observed the beaker of liquid turn from blue to yellow. And, then to hear them ask why and begin to make suggestions to each other.

In those minutes of watching and observing learners, I saw kids in those days of inquiry learning who were curious, interested, engaged, and empowered – not about everything, or in every class, but kids just weren’t sitting motionless at desks in our classes in that school listening all the time to teachers, or filling out work sheets, or taking practice tests, or reading from textbooks. It’s not that those things didn’t happen but they weren’t the dominant form of work that kids did in our science classes. We also didn’t sort and select kids or group them for work or even assign seats since we expected them to be independent and interdependent as they accomplished work together and moved routinely around two rooms.

I didn’t master this kind of teaching alone my first year but with the help of three other partner teachers, all with experience and all who were NSF trained in teaching through science inquiry. However, within three years of working (with no planning period and lunch daily with a class of kids in my room due to severe overcapacity enrollment kind of like walking uphill to school in the snow), I felt far more confident in my capability to move kids to think, ask good questions, manipulate variables, solve for unknowns, use lab equipment appropriately, and to hold their own in discussions with each other.

These great kids who also helped teach me how to be a teacher are in their fifties today with grandchildren who are in or already graduated from high school. When I occasionally run into one of them, they remember the field trips, the active work they did, and even reference the content, sometimes with a question about something they had done. But the most satisfying, even poignant comment I’ve heard was from a for profit package delivery supervisor who I ran into at the grocery store one day, “We had fun in school, I wish my own kid had that kind of fun in school.”

Cale library.jpgWhen I walk away from my role as superintendent at the end of this school year for family reasons, I don’t expect to leave the profession behind in totality. I’ve never imagined that I could be happier doing anything other than being an educator – although some free time to garden, read on demand, and not spend so many evenings in night activities does have its curb appeal. However, I can’t imagine life without a first day of school or time in a library or classroom reading to children or helping out as an extra pair of hands in the cafeteria. I expect I’ll volunteer a bit.

I’ve spent time over this winter holiday taking stock of a career filled with life’s lessons. I have learned across decades from educators, parents, and children that relationships matter more than anything else in our learning communities. Our voices have the power to hurt or heal and when we focus on finding common ground to solutions, we are more likely to walk away from our time together seeing the strengths of others, not their deficits.

I’ve also learned that no matter what standards or lessons we are expected to teach, whether as in my first years of teaching with inquiry as the end in mind or in the more mass standardized model of today’s test-objectified classrooms, it’s often the unintended opportunities that become the most influential learning experiences our children will get because of us. That’s why when a teacher said to me a few years ago, “Pam, I get frustrated when kids want to stop and talk about what really caused the American Civil War and not just take down notes – and I feel compelled to reply that we don’t have time.”

The time to pause and explore big ideas through the questions and curiosities of kids may be the greatest loss to learning that resulted from the reform movement that began in the 1980s and continues still today. The data are in and our kids today are less creative and less critical in their thinking than they were decades ago. Some think entertainment technologies are to blame and, yes, kids have been pulled away from play and active experiences by devices. But, as an educator who has lived through decades of mass standardization of rote learning, I, along with these empirical researchers, have to put that at the top of the list because the reform accountability movement began long before smart devices became common in the hands of children.

My advice to the social studies teacher that day and to others with similar concerns, knowing that I bear a different level of responsibility for test scores as superintendent than a classroom teacher does, “Take the time. There’s more to educating kids for life than just passing a state test. Learning to question, discuss, debate, defend, and listen to others’ perspectives is worth it’s weight in gold long after kids have forgotten the starting date of the Battle of Gettysburg. And, no state multiple choice test is going to measure those critical thinking skill sets.”

Reductions in state testing in Virginia has occurred because parents, teachers, and politicians have realized that the over-emphasis on testing has removed much of life from learning in our schools.  There’s a renewed interest in learning that has a stickiness beyond the temporary effect of test-prepping for the multiple choice tests that have permeated the lives of our young millennial teachers when they were students in school. I hope this younger generation of educators rejects the quick test to learn model and invests in using practices that build deep learning; project-focus, inquiry, labs, case studies, seminar discussions, observation and journal writing and so much more that can be done today to help kids become researchers and owners of their own learning. With Internet access today, we can take kids so much farther than the primitive technologies of my first years of teaching did and as a resource tool it expands the repertoire of excellent teaching possibilities far beyond what I had available to me in my teaching years.

Finally, in my reflective wanderings over this break, I also find I hold firm to a belief that restoring slow time to the learning process can lead us to …

school as an inspiring space for learning that promotes curiosity, questions, interests, and passions about everything from humanities to STEM to arts to wellness to languages of all kinds and,

to helping kids learn what they want to learn not just what we want them to learn and,

to finding positive relationships grounded in the strengths of a diverse community and,

to facilitating and coaching kids to work and learn together rather than mostly in isolation of each other.

Perhaps if we do these things, we have a shot at hooking kids on learning for life, not just to pass tests.

The Phygitals have Arrived — A Generation for this Century

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The phygital generation or Gen Z finds manipulating virtual reality paddles or headsets, entering an AR world, snap chatting with a friend, or posting an IG story as comfortable as playing a game of soccer under a lighted night, dancing with friends, reading a paper book, shopping with a parent or swinging high in the playground.

Learning spaces today aren’t all physical. Kids today locate themselves in space that is multidimensional, sometimes without walls, sometimes without solid artifacts, sometimes without another “bones and muscle” human.

They move with ease across boundaries, more interested in activity than watching. They are the #experiencedesign generation, kids who want to hack, invent, participate, infuse, create, and connect with their artifacts, memories, ideas, opportunities, communities. Place is just where they happen to be in the moment. Learning is not limited to school or home. Community is not limited to church or soccer practice or the cafeteria. Identity is not limited to demographic check boxes on a census form.

Phygitals value experiences as much as, if not more, than material possessions. They like to make learning – not just receive learning. They return us to our roots as humans because they value the power of story – as told through graphic novels, video games, or one-sitting, asynchronous, multi-device accessible video series. They have moved well beyond their grandparents’ Saturday night at the movies or weekly Tuesday night sitcom episode.

They care about their own wellness and that of the planet. They believe community matters and taking care of community is as important in distant physical places as it is to the people in their hometowns. It’s why, from my perspective, young people in so many school communities across the nation extend themselves to fundraise or collect donations for those impacted by disaster. They also don’t limit themselves to local car washes as the fundraiser of choice. Instead, they augment physical reality by seeking support across a multitude of online fundraising platforms, through social media publicity, and in student-crafted websites.

Phygitals use a multitude of text and image-based tools to learn, communicate, and share with others. They like face time and screen time. Given opportunities to chase down a drone or play foursquare, they will move. They easily locate themselves in a variety of spaces and know how to navigate those with ease.

However, even as phygitals’ sense of space has expanded, their physical need for caves, campfires, and watering holes remains. Our young humans still seek a continuum of places for silent work and meditation, family gatherings, tribal connectivity, and cross-pollination opportunities whether at games or marketplaces.

In school communities that understand and value learners’ active participation and leadership, educators are changing how they set up and use environments, pedagogy, tools, curricula, and assessment. Progressive school communities who shift practices left over from the 20th century become less “schoolish.” And, their children become less schooled as passive listeners and more active as empowered learners.

Educators in such contemporary learning communities value educating children for life more than teaching them to pass decontextualized tests. In taking the risk to make changes that lead to learners who see their voices as important, their agency as desired, and their influence as real, we adults can find inspiration in our capability to teach even as we learn along with our phygital children.

When Kids Make

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They think  ..

ask questions ..

try out ideas

 

They design .. and create

 

They figure out solutions .. and then construct them

They work together .. and sometimes alone

 

They code .. and make things work

They share ideas .. and try out playful solutions

They use tools .. and take things apart

They play ..

work ..

and learn.

 

When kids make they acquire knowledge and competencies in context rather than in isolation from opportunities to make meaning and sense. Sometimes they learn to make for the sheer joy of making and sometimes they make to learn because they are inspired to create with new ideas, skills, or knowledge.

To make is timelessly human.

Becoming Educated: More Questions Than Answers

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What if we were designing learning spaces where kids would develop and sustain personal understanding? Empathy? Collaborative competencies? Social-emotional learning?

(Creating collective social efficacy in a school community)

What if thinking in every way possible — collaborative, creative, logical, analytical, effectual, entrepreneurial — became a key end in mind for curricula, assessment, and pedagogy?

(Thinking through solutions in a design and build project)

What if we stopped designing spaces for decontextualized, content acquisition but rather designed for contextualized, transdisciplinary learning experience?

(Setting up bee hives for environmental studies, Photo courtesy of @munseyclass )

What if we designed learning spaces so that children grow up to thrive not just survive in the rising Age of Smart Machines? What if we created curricula to educate our young people for life, not school?

(Sharing sound studio skills at Entrepreneurial Showcase)

What if our goals, outcomes, expectations of learning were not, at their worst, painful or, at their least, limiting and inconsequential?

(Creating from music improv to tiny house construction)

What would change if our group purpose instead became democratization of learning so that children could access time, tools, expertise, and space to grow from their curiosity, interests, passion, and joy?

(Working on a personal project in the hacker space)

What if we designed spaces in which our young people inspire us to become better educators for them?

(Teens design and run a Youth Summit to share talents, projects, design challenges and solutions)

What if we designed spaces where contemporary children get to change the stories we tell about our own schooling? What if their narrative became stories of the power of their agency, voice, and influence as learners?

(Teens participating in School Board work session discussion on what they personally value about learning experiences)

What might the soul of learning become for those who teach, live, and learn together in this century’s learning spaces — if we made it our core work to make sense of these questions?

(Performing original music at the high school Entrepreneurial Showcase)

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.

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.

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.

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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