Beyond the Sky: Imagine That!


Beyond the Sky … 

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

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


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

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


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


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



The go pro footage showed Mission Accomplished!



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

The Pendulum or the Butterfly


“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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


Floor time project work

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

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

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

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

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

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

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

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

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

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

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

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

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

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

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

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

tower builders

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


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

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



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

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

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

Imagine Joy … as the goal

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hang out with kids and educators at our regional Destination Imagination(DI) Tournament. Quite a few of the young people on teams at the regional tournament attend schools in my district. Their spirit, passion, and excitement entice attending crowds who delight in watching these kids work and play. A positive atmosphere exudes from teams before, during, and after project performances. It’s a joyful place to be.

Rising Stars

At the recent tournament, I observed two grandmothers, who sat side by side to watch a Rising Star team, the youngest of the children who simply come to demonstrate their projects. The grandmothers were enchanted by the children’s skit about a robot who came to life.  On a gym floor, a high school all-girls team, pros from years past, wowed the judges with their expertise in designing, creating, building, engineering and presenting a space exploration project for “assembly required.”  Their girl-built, fully mechanized front end loader performed without a flaw – sheer joy to watch.

Year after year, the DI tournament delights everyone who comes to see these teams at work. if there‘s one thing all of the young people who recently wandered the school’s halls seemed to have in common, it’s their enthusiasm. In fact, these wanderers – from second graders to college students – reminded me of a long-ago BMW commercial that proclaimed a desire to not just build cars, but to create joy.

It strikes me that many teachers across the United States would “die for” a DI Saturday morning hallway feel every day of the school week. It’s the best of what the most interesting and challenging classrooms have always been for children – spaces where they can apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Observing at DI tournaments has led me to question whether the traditional achievement goals we’ve set should be key areas of focus for today’s learners? I wonder what the DI teams would say about goals that results in work that looks like this?

Does this create joy?

DI kids and BMW commercials remind me that the endgame of learning is more than reading, writing and doing math proficiently, with or without the use of adaptive tools such as netbooks,  smart devices, or paper and pencils. Learning without joy kills interest, enthusiasm, and ultimately drive. When joy’s present, it’s almost impossible to disengage kids of any age from learning in the moment.

Learning issues children face in today’s classrooms often represent instructional failures resulting from an inherent 20th century mismatch of one-size-fits-all, factory education with the natural variance among young people who develop differently, learn differently, and assess differently. These differences have always existed, regardless of economic background, capability, gender, handicap or ethnicity. And, in reality, we can all find ourselves handicapped as learners, losing touch with the sheer joy of learning simply because of our mismatch with the learning environment, teacher, tool, schedule, or program.

On the other hand, when kids can access the learning environment, learning work, learning time, learning tools, and teacher support they need, even the sky doesn’t limit what they can accomplish. The work of the librarian in this high school is a case in point. When she redesigned library spaces to include a music production studio that integrated content and the arts, some of the school’s disengaged learners became students in all the best and most productive ways a teacher might desire.

In watching what happens when kids get access to developing capabilities that transcend 20th century curricula, I wonder, in this second decade of the 21st century, is it good enough to focus on reading, or any content area, as an isolated goal for learning work?

Are the needed goals really about STEM, literacy, social studies, or even the arts? Or, should goals be aligned with learning to access and use knowledge – to search, connect, collaborate – as young people choose from a variety of tools and multiple formats as drivers to create, invent, make, build, engineer, design, and produce?

Here’s what one joyful “at-risk” fifth grader listed as goals he’d like to accomplish by the time he turned 100. Who wouldn’t want all our young people to have such lofty goals including the acquisition of “awesome mind power?” But, where do his goals fit with those of educators who must spend precious time selecting vendor-aid instructional programs, developing time-intensive educator evaluation measures, and using more difficult standardized tests to enforce the teaching and learning of 20th century content and low-level skills?

If I Live to be 100, I'd like to ...

Despite the intensifying pressures of the last decade, children have been going to factory schools, not very joyful places, for a long time. Phillip Schultz, dyslexic Pulitzer Prize poet, reflects on the impact of factory schools upon his learning world, “I was put in the dummy class, kicked out of two schools, seen as hopeless, and I accepted that.. an awful lot to adjust to.”

We all can recite stories of dropouts who once carried gifted labels, bored mathematical thinkers waiting with patience for engineering schools, sensitive writers and artists who see school as “killing them softly,” and learners, handicapped or not, who yearn to graduate or drop out – so they never have to sit and do time in class again. These are not new school stories. However, we can change the stories young people tell about their learning.

Today, we need to take a lesson from both DI and BMW. Joyful learning commits us to our work. Joyful learning should be a goal for every child, including those of today’s children who, not unlike Phillip Schultz, continue to find themselves lost from learning in our contemporary classrooms. We can’t change the past, but we can change now and the future. After all, it’s not the educators or learners who’re broken. It’ the system that’s broken – one that was never designed to support success for all learners.

The Destination Imagination and BMW basics of creativity, teamwork, and problem-solving are essential competencies for success in college, the workforce, and as citizens and family members. Kids shouldn’t have to sign up for a DI team to get access to these basics. When a teacher integrates DI “basics” into pretty much any content, s/he becomes a teacher who is not just teaching, but creating joy as a baseline of learning.

Creativity, Problem-Solving, Teamwork

How different would our school-day hallways be if we loaded as many joy-laden learning tools as possible into our educational toolkit and then used them well?  How much more pleasure would we all derive from our day jobs – educators and learners alike?  What might the results be if learners could routinely create, problem-solve and work as valued members of diverse teams?

Why not pledge to bring joy into the classroom for a moment, an hour, or a day each week  for the rest of this year? What’s the cost of that?

Joy powers commitment and passion. It renews energy. It excites. It creates a sense that we can accomplish anything. It’s an essential outcome of our inalienable right to  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  It’s a gift that “keeps on giving.”


(thank you @jengrahamwright for sharing your 6th graders’ movies- I loved this silent movie- especially the joyful bloopers!)