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.

The Pendulum or the Butterfly

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“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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

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Floor time project work

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

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

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

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

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

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

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

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

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

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

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

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

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

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

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

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

tower builders

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

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

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

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 Postscript:

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

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

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

Why not Children as Teachers – not just Learners?

This morning I glanced occasionally at a range of adolescent orangutans engaging in problem-solving play and stick-based learning with, and from, each other on an Animal Planet show. They were teaching and learning together as mammalian young have been wont to do across time. It reminded me of an I-search question that’s been on my mind for a while. What if we set up school communities to more formally and informally situate children and adolescents to teach and learn together in multi-age opportunities as they’ve always done? What might be different and why? And does the rationale still make sense for sustaining our current paradigm for single-age learning communities, a paradigm that only developed in the early years of the 20th century?

Orphaned orangutans, Borneo, Andy Bingham

While visiting Irish educators and observing in multiple school settings with @irasocol, our conversations often centered upon how highly effective and supportive use of multi-age classes leads children to learn from other children. We dropped in on a range of multi-age learning communities from large, diverse urban to tiny, 2-teacher Gaeltacht primary schools (K-6 in U.S. terms.) Despite my experience with some multi-age classrooms when I was an elementary principal, it was eye-opening to witness the ethos of multi-age learning that’s so deeply embedded in Ireland.

In this class, level 6 routinely teaches Level 2

In Ireland, primary teachers have a difficult time envisioning a single grade classroom and they consider deep literacy acquisition and the nation’s high literacy rate as related to multi-age opportunities to build vocabulary, learn concepts, and scaffold learning across disciplines. They also saw this model as creating a culture that socially advances appropriate behaviors at work and play by and among children, causing significantly less devotion of time to teaching children “how to do school.”

Versions of this comment also surface from local teachers in our very few systemic multi-age settings, such as a K-1 classes, as well as from teachers who loop up with children to the next grade.Teachers in multi-age  communities  or those that stay together for more than a year seem to spend less time enforcing rules and more academic time working with children – in Ireland or here. This seems important given the concerns of educators about never having enough time.

Since May, I’ve also had the chance to watch multi-age, really multi-age communities from 7-18 years of age attending #coderdojos in both Thurles,Ireland and Albemarle, Va. In Thurles, my friend and colleague, Pam O’Brien, @pamelaaobrien, provided an opportunity to experience my first #coderdojo. This summer, I was in and out of a local school observing #coderdojo participants over four days in my own district. In both cases, children relished the opportunity to play and work with each other, often in antithesis of the stereotypical images of tech learning and learners. Instead, girls taught boys and younger children helped older ones code in Scratch, HTML, and with Lego robotics design software. Age was not the greatest variable. What the kids knew and could do was though. Sometimes the adults were the teachers. And, sometimes children taught the adults.

a younger and older elementary student working together on a laptop

#Cvillecoderdojo: kids teaching kids

When six-year-old Sean in Thurles was asked what he did when he got stuck creating a Scratch game, he pointed to an 11-year old red-head, Steven. When I posed the same question to Steven, he turned to a 20-year-old college student and said, “she helps me when I need a hand.” At our local #codedojo here in Virginia, the teaching team started out with 4 relatively age-based coding rooms. By the end of four days, the kids were working together with as much as ten years difference in age to search, connect, communicate, and make.

As a result of thinking about the possibilities of multi-age teaching and learning, I was drawn back to reconsider the “hole in the wall” project of Sugata Mitra’s. In this educational “experiment,” Mitra, in 1999, first placed secure computers in walls and made them accessible to children who have no schools in their community. Then, he watched. Over time, the children worked, played, and figured out how to use the technology, connecting to the Internet, creating music, and playing with applications. Then, they began to teach and learn with each and from each other. Outside school. Outside adult teaching.

These observations of recent have led me to consider how little we advantage learners by creating opportunities for them to learn together, with and from each other, as storytellers, writers, readers, problem-solvers, creators, builders, designers, engineers, producers, makers, researchers, and decision-makers. How might opportunities to teach and learn from each other more deeply facilitate all young people to remain curious, passionate, engaged, connected, and futuristic in their thinking and doing?

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working together to problem-solve maths

Adults are the first models for learning.  By nature, they’re also teachers in the home as parents and by profession as educators. However, children, too, in their DNA are teachers and learners, too.  Mammalian young learn from each other with the same ease as  taking their first breath. So, why do our U.S. schools, in general, not take advantage of that versus trying to isolate children from each other in the learning process? In the natural world of orangutans what scientists label as learning from each other; we, in the education world, label as cheating.In Ireland, I saw children share their project work with each other and use it to scaffold and advance their own work- a very different way of thinking about learning than we practice here.

But, think of the potential to maximize learning in schools with a “many to many” rather than “one to many” teaching and learning approach. While commonplace in both the 1800s multi-age schoolhouses of America and in the “hedge” schools of Ireland, the multi-age community disappeared in the United States as we modernized our one-room schools into factory schools that became ubiquitous in the 1900s. As in most of Europe, Ireland’s commitment to multi-age learning did not.

a one room school house made of logs I wonder to what degree the single grade nature of our current factory-driven, teacher-directed elementary classrooms has contributed to the social and academic learning gaps with which we are concerned today. Does the single grade system that we use really make us more efficient or effective to borrow from the business language that emerged from the work of Frederick Taylor and Elwood Cubberley? Or not?

Teaching and learning together occur naturally in children’s tree-house building projects in community backyards. However, such informal multi-age “play, teach, learn” experiences seem to be fast disappearing from our culture, just as multi-age learning evaporated with the advent of 20th century schools.  Watching the Olympics, I think of all the games that older children have taught younger children to play, naturally and without much adult intervention. Given our historical and evolutionary dispositions to play, teach, and learn in multi-age communities, why would we be so surprised to see contemporary children teaching and learning together, whether abandoned in the mean streets of India or dropped off at a #coderdojo by their parents?

After observing multi-age communities in Irish classrooms and coderdojos, adolescent orangutans in Borneo, and Mitra’s “hole in the wall” child-teachers, I wonder why we wouldn’t begin to redesign our schools to take advantage of this natural capacity of young people to teach, not just to learn?

In what ways could we create multi-age learning opportunities in our schools? Why not set that as a goal this year? It could be a game changer for contemporary learners – and you.

In this classroom everyone is a student everyone is a teacher

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.”

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