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 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.
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:
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.
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?
I remember eighth grade because it was the year that America rolled out a new approach to learning called New Math. It was an epic failure in my small, mostly rural school. Why? It wasn’t “normal” math.
There were ideas such as Base 2 and pictographs of odd squiggly lines that looked like hieroglyphics. The teacher hated New Math. Our parents hated New Math. So, it could only follow that so did my classmates and I.
I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect no professional development existed for the teacher in my small high school. So, we pushed our way through a year in a book that seemed to make no sense to anyone.
I imagine no one was more frustrated than the teacher who faced our quizzical faces every day.
Eventually, we were handed back our old, tattered texts with all the prior years of student names written neatly in a column so we wouldn’t mix books up or claim one that wasn’t ours. We went back to writing out answers to decontextualized procedures we had copied on Blue Horse lined notebook paper, mindlessly memorizing math steps, and replicating responses to problems from examples embedded in the text. Most of us never thought deeply about math because we could add, subtract, multiply and divide using mindless procedures that never allowed us to do much more than that. We were so dependent upon the formulas.
Today, much of what teachers tried to introduce in the 1960s and again in the late 80s is considered effective math teaching by mathematicians and math educators who understand what is essential to truly becoming math literate. They know that memorizing procedures and writing out problems that simply follow a formula doesn’t lead to mathematical understanding or thinking. They understand that interactive resources, especially manipulatives, help build conceptual understanding which is foundational to using math well. They come from a philosophy that mathematical thinking ideally pushes a complexity of understanding critical to deep learning processes in math.
So why is much of math teaching today still focused on learning math just about in the same way I learned math with the exception of that one short 8th grade stint? Why do we still focus on procedures that take so much time kids get little computational thinking, conceptual understanding, and complex problem-solving?
1) We know we have far too many discrete math standards specified by states and these are taught and tested with little context and little time to slow down and build conceptual understanding. That’s just one reason why the formal and informal politics of math continues to fail the nation’s learners of today.
2) We also know that generations of teachers and parents are still enamored with how they learned math. The methods of their youth from flash cards to “borrow and carry” are what they know as learning math. Changing traditions in America’s approach to learning math has been difficult if not darn near impossible.
3) Curriculum, assessment, and instruction in math needs to be imagined through a zero-based design model. This means starting from scratch. In a nation where education is politics, competency in mathematics is inaccessible to most adults, and getting any kind of agreement to change is next to impossible, there’s not much hope that the why what, and how of teaching math will shift.
4) We seldom put in the time and distance to change practice. To teach math differently means developing adult competence and understanding. It means coaching with math specialists who bring empathy to peers and not just knowledge. It means time to plan, practice, reflect, and redo the hard work of teaching math. It means commitment to resources whether it’s manipulatives or professional support.
So, the question I put on the page this afternoon?
Do we continue to admire the problem or do we do something to change the path? I can only say when I look at what our kids learn in and about math, I am reminded of something the late Bill Glasser once said, “if something isn’t working, consider that you can stop doing it.”
What math practices should we stop doing? What should we start? Your turn
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.
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 play ..
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.
I watched the Paralympics held in Rio last summer and I was both amazed and inspired by the drive, resilience, passion, and accomplishment of people we label as disabled but who, in many cases, can athletically outperform the average person who has all body parts intact. Disabled athletes use accessibility tools that create pathways allowing them participate in events that years ago no one would have considered possible. These athletes swim, run, jump, fence, ride, throw, lift, row, sail and so much more. The Paralympics celebrates Universal Design, Inclusion, Can Do beliefs, equity, and openness to possibilities. Not only do disabled athletes demonstrate self agency and advocacy but they are surrounded by people — family, friends, coaches — who champion their assets and capabilities and support removing philosophical and physical barriers to opportunities rather than sustaining them.
The Paralympics story reminds me of the barriers to learning we may still erect in front of young people, both in PK-12 and higher education. Rather than promoting equity of access by actively advocating and acting to take down philosophical barriers, we sometimes maintain those barriers because of beliefs and values that limit potential. Access to a full, rich curricula is one example.
I remember talking a few years ago to a teacher who was concerned about a middle school student who was upset because he’d been excluded from reading a book he wanted to read in a book group because of his learning disability. The teacher commented that he just couldn’t read the text and so he had been placed in a less sophisticated book. I was just on the front end of processing background on universal design for learning and asked her if he could listen to the text since he would have no problem handling the cognitive challenge of the content. She replied, “but listening is not real reading.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I myself had begun to listen to audio books in the car and felt when I finished a book I had indeed “read” it (for the record I’m a lifelong voracious text consumer which seems to be worth less and less as we move into the Machine Age.) I walked away thinking we have to challenge our definition of what it means to be a reader – and what it means to be labeled as learning disabled.
Today, the district where I work has adopted Universal Design for Learning as one of seven pathways to transforming learning. We are not “there” yet with 25 schools in terms of full ownership of this philosophical shift but we load every student device with an image that includes a suite of accessibility tools so every student can use a multitude of apps that open the door to equity of curricular access. After all, if medical school students listen to podcasts at triple speed rather than going to lectures and use text to speech to turn assigned text into audio to maximize access why would we continue to deny children with learning disabilities access to complex text they can’t read but they can comprehend?
Why would we not choose to create habitable worlds of schooling for all learners?
finding private reading space in the elementary library
I just ran into the work of Professor Rosemary Garland-Thomsen of Emory University who researches, teaches, and writes about expansion of assistive supports to create more habitable worlds for disabled people. The phrase ‘habitable world’ caught my attention because I believe that each learning space, community, and the full curricula of our schools should be accessible to everyone — in essence, schools as habitable worlds of learning.
In her work, Professor Garland-Thomsen speaks to two different narratives that drive people’s decisions about equity of access within a community: either a eugenics philosophy or an inclusion philosophy.
The term eugenics should not be used or taken lightly given its origins and its impact. The worst of American history has been rooted in the Eugenics Movement, a legacy of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Sir Francis Darwin. Social Darwinism, a cultural perspective on why class systems exist, made child labor and inhumane adult labor conditions acceptable long after slavery was abolished in the US. In the early 1920s, the Eugenics Movement gave birth to the infamous sterilization laws of states across the nation. In Virginia thousands of citizens were sterilized, including under-aged teens and mostly adult women. The tragic case of young Cary Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Virginia enacted its eugenics law. Virginia’s laws were upheld and, in the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Beginning with the sterilization of Cary Buck, the SCOTUS ruling led to decades of sterilization across the nation and citation of Virginia law in the Nuremburg trials in defense of the actions of Nazi Germany.
As the Eugenics Movement faded, the Civil Rights Movement emerged as a progressive force leading to integration of public schools and full community access to public spaces for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Public law law 94–142 or IDEA as it’s known today was enacted in 1975 to support disabled children to attend and receive needed educational services in public schools, regardless of disability. Coupled with IDEA, the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act protected disabled people from discrimination, adding a layer to a progressive philosophy of inclusionary procedures and practices.
These three federal acts increased the potential of accessibility to a habitable world (defined broadly as a planet supporting life or more narrowly as schools supporting all learners, Pk-12 to higher education, with the tools, resources, and strategies they need to succeed) for people in communities across the nation.
How do create schools that are not boxes that wall learners in?
In schools today, we talk the talk that learners’ voices matters, their learning agency is valued, and their influence is of merit. When it comes to walking the walk, however, our work breaks down without a relentless commitment from professionals who will challenge assumptions and practices that represent the vestiges of a eugenics philosophy and promote the inclusionary practices to which progressive educators aspire.
If we are to realize our inclusionary aspirations, how do we attend, act, and advocate to confront the soft ‘eugenics’ still inherent in educational settings? How do we change practices that create school cultures where it’s acceptable to:
Sort and select children by perceived differences that limit access to and equity of learning opportunities
Turn a blind eye to ostracizing, bullying, name-calling, and shunning that can represent both adults’ and/or children’s behaviors in learning communities
Negatively label children based on value judgements about gender, color, economic background, class, sexual orientation, native language, parental behaviors, disability/ability and so on
Avoid development of pedagogical skills essential to teach children through a culturally responsive, trauma sensitive, equity of access lens
Ignore differences among children’s assets, resources, and home support outside of school
Refuse to provide access to the tools children need so that print isn’t a barrier to information sources and text entry isn’t a hurdle to showing their knowledge or sharing their creativity
Set up rules, situations and schedules that isolate children from access to their full community whether during recess, play-time, lunch, extracurricular activities, or academic groups and teams?
When contemporary educators endorse and use these practices, we create an uninhabitable world of learning reflective of schooling traditions of the twentieth century. We limit opportunity, potential, and possibilities and never even know what has been missed because we filter the capabilities of young people through beliefs long outdated by the tools available in today’s world.
The Good News ….
We can and are doing better in many schools today. Some teachers make different choices, challenging the normative factory model that is still relatively intact in some schools despite deep, well-researched knowledge about learning.
Social media make us aware of the voices of progressive teachers who practice a philosophy of open-ended learning rather than instruction limited by rigid standards or performance measured mostly by four-choice, one-answer tests. Today’s progressive educators provide children with opportunities to pursue their learning interests, passions, and curiosities as they learn with peers of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. Such teachers recognize the learning power when children work together to find solutions, create, make, design, build, and produce learning.
Teachers who create a habitable learning world for all children value them as explorers, pioneers, settlers, and even resisters of learning. They don’t see a singular path as the only one navigable to learning. They don’t see one destination as an end point for a child’s year. They remain open to and notice the semiotics that help them make meaning of the learning community. They study what each child needs to access full participation in the habitat of the classroom. They listen to children to learn about their culture, stressors, assets, values, interests, and capabilities. Such teachers tune into and confront their own and others’ deficit thinking. When faced with their own biases and the biases of others, they don’t back away from tough conversations and reflection. They own their own learning and value working with a heterogeneous community of learners and peers.
Progressive educators are changing education in their classrooms and influencing others so that all children enter a habitable world of learning, one that has for too long been off-limits for some. They seek to re-norm educational practices through an inclusionary philosophy that embraces all learners.
As a mentor said to me years ago, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier around — and to change an educational practice. Both can be done. It just takes the will and the skill to do it.”
Attend. Advocate. Act. It’s how we will accomplish just that.
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)
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.
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.
I 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?” As 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.
And, 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.
Finally, 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.