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.
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.
Here’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just say yes.