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.

waltonwork

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.

 

student Iyoade.jpg

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. 

student Julian.jpg

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.

Henley gym3

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.

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?

3 students working on math problem-solving on the floor

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

3 Ornaments

Sometimes it’s the simple things that remind me of why I continue to do what I do.   It seems as if some new uphill challenge always looms on the horizon and moving up that hill can feel overwhelming. I have come to believe it’s what we do with our challenges, not what we allow our challenges to do to us, that defines who we ultimately become as we face each day of our life.

Doug Reeves says when harmonious passion, a belief we make a difference and we can see the results of our work, exists in people we remain optimistic, despite challenges. Ira Socol speaks to the importance of courageous creativity within those pathfinders who willingly take risks to try something new to solve problems rather than continuing to sustain the schooling traditions of our past.  Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark as pushing forward on an uncharted journey into the unknown; indeed a voyage of life and death challenges. These two embodied what Ambrose labels as “undaunted courage.” And, then there’s Charley who articulates his perspective upon Willy’s life in the Requiem at the end of Death of a Salesman, speaking to the dreams that sustain us even when we feel unfulfilled and a bit lost in our careers.

“ He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.” – Charley

Adding children’s handmade ornaments to the Christmas tree each year became at some point my own annual retrospective on the challenges of life and the importance of sustaining passion, creativity, courage, and dreams in meeting and moving past challenges. The ornaments became my metaphor for why I do what I do.

When I first heard of “Joanie”, she was described as a challenged young girl who had never attended school. She was wheelchair bound with both physical and mental disabilities, including the need to be catherized daily. At age 12, not too long after the newly minted federal legislation for IDEA, her parents enrolled her in school for the first time. We teachers were all scared of what it would mean to be responsible for this child. As a second year teacher, she ended up with me.

I learned from “Joanie” what undaunted courage looks like in a child, She’d never been out of the home, experienced other children her age, or trusted adults other than her parents to take care of her. Yet, she rolled in to the school foyer without looking back at her parents standing at the door. Over months she became a part of my class, learning to care about and trust us as we also learned to care about and trust her. I will never forget the day, a friend rolled her to our newly constructed goldfish pond and she was selected by classmates to carefully place our goldfish in their new home. And, I will always remember when she came by my room with her mother and handed me this ornament, saying “thank you for letting me be in your class.” I learned from her that a child should never have to feel grateful for being included in a classroom community.

He was a scrawny little boy, “Jack.” Some days, I had to force myself to go to him to check on his work because the smell was overpowering.  No one wanted to sit near him. It was woodsmoke, clothes too long unwashed, and that feel he was always looking at other children’s food as if he was ready to fight them for it. Yet, it seemed somehow right that I would let this country kid bring his pet squirrel to school to share with the class (this occurred long before such a thing would be totally verboten in our schools.) He never said thank you, but I shouldn’t have expected his gratitude anyway for simply being able to contribute something of himself to the class.

I’m not sure where he got the glitter or the toothpicks to make an ornament for a teacher, but I do know that he probably had to build up more than a little courage to sneak the stuff home from school. Right before the winter holidays, he handed the ornament he’d created wrapped up in some toilet paper. He taught me the importance of “teacher” that year and  while every child is worthy of attention, some children need us more than others to survive life’s slaps of fate.

I loved this kid. “Bobby” couldn’t read, but since he loved science we got along well. After all, our passion for science wasn’t shared universally in our class. His enthusiasm had no boundaries  – a constant stream of questions and comments about all things science. I could always count on him to hang around after class to ask if he could help clean up or set up lab activities. However, I did have a conundrum about what to do when he failed every written test that first marking period. Somewhere inside me, I began to learn from his results what children know and understand inside their minds does not always match what they put on the paper we call tests.  Perhaps it wasn’t fair to the others that I started reading him the tests at lunch and letting him answer questions orally. No one told me to stop. And, I didn’t ask for permission.  Every time I place his ornament on the tree- made from burnt matches and an old card- I remember that everything worth measuring can’t be measured in the same way for every child.

After all my years in education, I now have a collection of children’s ornaments to place on the family tree. Each one recalls a child and reminds me that the dreams I had as a young teacher are just as important now as they were at any point in my career. I also know I’ve learned as much from children as I have helped them learn. In many ways, they have been my best teachers.

These simple gifts remind me why I keep pushing up the hill.

Blogging for Grassroots Positive Reform: November 22, verse 2

Tom Whitby,@tomwhitby, called for our professional learning network to speak on October 17, 2010 to positive reform of America’s educational silos. 118 edu-bloggers from all walks responded with cogent, passionate messages from the heart. The REBELSbloggers wallwisher and  @ericmacknight’s blog site archived these blogs on behalf of the PLN.

graphic courtesy of:  http://speedchange.blogspot.com/

A week later in rereading these incredible posts, I couldn’t shake one of those philosophical questions of college days gone by. “If a tree falls in a forest, and no-one’s around to hear, does it make a sound?”  I feel that our voices are somewhat like that. The intensity of our daily calls to action forms a cacophony in my mind. I hear. Members of our active twitter and blogging communities hear. But, if politicians, the media, the business community, senior citizens, and many others including our colleagues aren’t in our network, “do our voices make a sound?”

November 22 provides us with another chance to unify our voices for real grassroots educational reform. It’s almost Thanksgiving and there’s nothing we should be more thankful for than the 1000s of Statue of Liberty schools in this nation whose doors are open to all. To be thankful, however, does not mean we need to maintain the past. Ira Socol, @irasocol,  captures that perspective in his Blogging for Real Reform post about November 22.

Let’s continue our work just one month after Tom’s initial call to action. We know we need to form a new era rather than just reform the factory schools of our past.

Write about policies that don’t work and what we should do instead. Write about learning for the future such as advanced in the National Educational Technology Plan. Write about your passions for teaching the contemporary learners you serve and what you need to support your work. Write about the educational changes our young people deserve from educators and politicians alike.

Let’s make sure our voices are heard on and after November 22. The American Association of School Administrators and the Virginia ASCD both have taken a public stand to say, “let’s continue this call to action in the social media world” by supporting the November 22 date on their websites. Paula White, @paulawhite, of the  cooperative catalyst graciously has set up a site for archiving links similarly to Eric’s site.

Our links from October 17 and November 22 need to make a sound beyond our “forest.” Let’s not just write, but also share work with local media, national media, politicians everywhere, the Secretary of Education and the President of the United States. Our educational associations, many of whom have a social media presence today, need to hear us. We know the names, the emails, the twitter addresses, and blogs of those who need to hear educators’ voices. We just need to share.

Through our positive efforts, let’s create a movement for grassroots education reform. Seth Godin in a Ted Talk says that a Tribe becomes a movement when passion for change is ignited.  I like to think that October 17 wasn’t just an event but the beginning of a movement.  If you are active in any one of our chat networks and the Educators’ PLN, help publicize and encourage everyone’s engagement on November 22. Post your social media voices at cooperative catalyst and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Then, take it a step further and share your favorite posts or all of them from both October 17 and November 22 with those who need to hear from us.