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.

 

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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.

treehouse.jpg

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.

Pay Learning Forward: Back to the #FutureReady

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obamaAs superintendents shared their districts’ contemporary learning stories on a field trip to the ConnectEd Summit in DC, our professional speech described the natural, and ancient, learning pathways of humans from field experience to tool use.

“Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more…  And there it is.  You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher.” Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Today’s high tech research to decode the workings of the human brain tells us that natural pathways to learning (Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher) embed what we learn in our neural structures. In essence, we humans are born to move, narrate, imitate, listen, design, create, build, engineer, play, sing, dance, and apprentice our way to the learning needed to thrive, not just survive, in our homes, communities, and work.

Simulation Center work

Simulation Center work

Why did the ConnectEd Summit superintendents come to these pathways in our stories about our students’ and teachers’ most innovative work?  It’s because our stories framed a context for what’s necessary to capture the potential of all children as learners, regardless of the era into which they are born.

Tools change, knowledge advances, and skills develop as generations march forward,  but what our young people need as learners today is as old as stone tools the most ancient of teachers once taught children to use. Our children still need us to support them to search, connect, communicate, and make in the caves, campfires, and watering holes of today’s communities – only now both face-to-face and virtually.

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The Free Speech Wall Charlottesville Va

At the Summit, superintendents were clear in conversations with each other, the Secretary of Education, and his staff that learning must sustain a spirit of inquiry that fosters creativity, critical and ethical reasoning, communication, and collaboration. We communicated pride in our districts’ efforts to put the factory school model behind us as we design learning spaces for today’s children.

Here’s what I heard emerge as themes from our discussions about the inspiring and inventive teaching and learning occurring across the network of school communities linking our nation:

  • We described commitments to project- and problem-based learning through which young people follow their personal passions and interests to seek and create work meaningful to them through the arts, STEM/STEAM, or global action projects.
  • We shared opportunities for learners of all ages to venture out of desks and chairs and into multi-age communities, coming face-to-face with the real world of interdisciplinary applications, high-and low-tech tool uses, and authentic, experiential learning – a purposeful abandonment of Carnegie’s required seat time memorizing content in de-contextualized silos to take high stakes state tests.
  • We pinpointed the critical need to address economic gaps and opportunity gaps so we can ensure equity and access for all young people to excellent teachers, contemporary learning spaces, broadband connectivity, mobile devices, time, and other essential resources.
  • We described natural learning as transportable everywhere a child can go in a community, virtually connected – or not.

From Alaska to Florida, a tiny microcosm of America’s schools, 100+ superintendents along with a few teachers, students, and principals who also lead to educate young people (50 million of them in around 16,000 school districts spread across 3.80 million U.S. square miles/9.85 million km2) came to D.C. to hear the President.

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Yet, the voices that resonate in my head are those of students – young reporters covering the Summit, a high school student seated with equal status at the table with suited superintendents from around the nation, millennials working the twittersphere. Their voices represented the agency of young people communicating a value for adults who help them figure out how to grow into their voices, find their stride as influencers, and pursue their dreams for not just the future, but also the here and now. Whether at the ConnectEd Summit or simply chatting in the #stuvoice twitter stream about what they care about, our young people affirm what engages and empowers them.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

In the end, I think we all left knowing that realizing a bright future for young people really isn’t about superintendents gathering in DC for an event. It’s about unifying our communities to care for, respect, and value each child as a learner and to support those who teach. Our ancestors must have known this too as they engaged in their own version of #futureready learning work. They surely wanted similar things – children who thrive, grow up to become successful adult contributors in their own families and communities, and who are kept as safe and healthy as possible in an increasingly challenging world.

 

Isn’t that the best of who we are now and who we’ve always been –  generations of parents and teachers committed to our children as we pay learning forward?

 

 

 

 

A Summer of Maker Learning

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Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Maker

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                         Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                           Design and Thinking, the Movie

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from our school staffs. Imagine the recess play that used to be the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

Consider these questions.

How are our schools better spaces for learning and learners as a result of the standardization movement? Are our little “widgets” happier, more creative, more capable critical thinkers? Can we say they’re learning to … play well with others … contribute positively to their communities … acquire competencies needed in contemporary and future workforces?  Can they access and use the learning knowledge they need from multiple sources both virtually and in the real world?

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my district engage in maker “summer school” curricula, one not predefined by standardization or test-driven results. They’ve created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve balanced the use of embodied and encoded languages, the DNA of human learning. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits,  designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Our district’s elementary maker summer camps were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A diverse group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of different leaders into their school. They built teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills, making games, websites, and programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on #make2learn and #learn2make as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to adult talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Those with effective “doing school behaviors” might get their A’s and look like good students but they also often feel disconnected from joy and passion for their work as learners.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s also felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers  today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced so students will have covered what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners – field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting the school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between  middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.  “Test prep” disadvantages all learners as experiential learning has been subtracted from our classrooms and schools. Our children who face challenges associated with risk factors are disadvantaged the most.

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                      Rotman School of Management                                       Design and Thinking, the Movie

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of measuring what students know in standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

Who are the learners today who learn in the moment because of their own interests or because they need to do so? The learners who don’t just learn on command when we want them to learn? Where are the citizen-thinkers who tinker to learn and who get their hands dirty, perhaps earning a callus or two along the way? Could the “culture” of creativity and innovation we so highly prize in America be an outcome of skills we developed within families and communities as we fought first to survive, then to subsist, and, finally, to expand from East to West? Is that culture still breathing? Are our schools on their own when it comes to educating America’s young people? Are we in what America’s top CEOs call a creativity crisis? Where are our fence designers today?


When I reflect upon the ingenuity of early colonists homesteading in the Blue Ridge, it’s pretty obvious to me that despite a lack of “school” education, these families depended upon deep creative and critical problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes I wonder if schools were ever a source of this nation’s creative genius or whether our creativity and passion for innovation emerged as a socio-cultural skill of survival that continued to be honed across generations until… today.

Perhaps our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all schools we have inhabited for generations but also by our current capacity to acquire the resources to buy, service or replace on a whim. Or, maybe despite our urge to still repair or fix things around us, our creativity’s being defeated by technology advances that lock us out of problem-solving possibilities. I suspect it’s a combination of all of these. As the digital divide fades away, will the next divide be between those who can create and respond in the moment with innovative solutions and those who cannot? How important are concrete experiences to honing creative and critical thought?

It struck me as I chatted recently with a local plumber at work with his seventeen year-old son that his son was learning something that most of our children are not. They were working on an older neighborhood home with a mash-up of pipes carrying water inside and outside, from well to drain field. I watched this young man work with his father to problem-solve the size and length of pipe needed, how to find underground pipes they needed to locate, and where to drill through an unanticipated concrete, not cinder block, footing.

I simply listened and watched as the two of them worked together, sorting through a series of multi-step problems that involved spatial relations, mathematical-analytical, verbal-linguistic, and kinesthetic intelligence; with a healthy dose of deductive reasoning on both their parts. They didn’t use any computer-based technologies, but rather a few old-fashioned technologies that most of our kids today can’t name, let alone use: the pick-axe, the shovel, the measuring tape,the level, the square, and the pipe-wrench. Many today disdain these tools as beneath them, but I was struck in watching these two at work that perhaps the lack of these tools in our children’s lives is one reason we as a culture appear to be losing our creative edge.

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

I think about my visits to schools over the course of this school year. While I love seeing new learning technologies being used by young people, I also appreciated second graders measuring with unifix cubes and handmade rulers, middle schoolers playing stringed instruments, chemistry students in goggles analyzing mixtures in old-fashioned test tubes, and kindergarteners with hands covered in blue finger paint. I loved the imagery created by the first grade teacher in her rocking chair reading from a picture book with children gathered on the floor, second graders chasing each other in a healthy game of tag, and high schoolers outdoors at lunch hanging around picnic tables and lounging on the ground.

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Comfort, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking

In reflection, what I most value is the level of activity and engagement everywhere I look in our schools from fifth graders using iPod touches to race hallways in an in-school scavenger hunt to third graders dancing with their music teacher. Isn’t it this movement of thought processes that defines how we connect with our creative genius? When I see minds in action, not passively contained in rows, I believe that the intellectual juice of this nation can still power deep learning through the vast array of tools at our disposal, inside and out of the places we call schools.

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

These tools represent the dichotomy of our struggle to teach this techno-generation: how we capitalize upon using new technology learning tools while making sure our young people don’t lose the capability to use old technology tools as well. When we power up our young people with the “high-tech” learning tools we make available in our schools today, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must still power up our young people with musical instruments, paintbrushes, Legos, beakers, bones, pulleys, picture books, woodworking tools, kitchen stoves, blocks and more.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Our youngest children need to have their hands on a variety of tools, but our eldest do as well. All of our children need time to socialize face to face, not just in text bytes. I want our young people to graduate with the skills to problem-solve how to fix a leaky faucet or rewire a lamp that stops functioning. I don’t want them to always feel compelled to search the Internet for an “Angie’s list” problem-solver for all their household conundrums.

I want them to…

  • wander parks, fields, forests and their own yards, taking time to not just glance past a Viceroy butterfly or mantis but also to ask questions and seek answers about that which they don’t know
  • be inspired by music from a range of genres and time periods – to grow up savoring the natural world and the arts
  • understand scientific concepts that underpin how things work, what things are, and systems that explain and support life
  • engage in passionate dialogue about the rights of humankind through informed perspectives based on deep knowledge of history, politics, religion, and culture
  • speak a second, and maybe even a third language, but especially to understand the language of mathematics and,
  • see themselves as poets, narrators, conversationalists, and consumers of literature

I guess what I am really looking for is a nation committed to creating a learning renaissance with an infusion of enlightenment thrown in to extend and challenge the thinking of young people who represent the future. And, yes, I’d also like to see our young people use technology to connect, communicate, and collaborate with the world; to draw upon the experts, their peers, and the breadth of resources that together make pathways to deep learning universally accessible to all of our young people.

We now have the capability to turn on a faucet of learning opportunities unlike anything in the history of humankind. But, shouldn’t we make sure our kids don’t lose the capability to problem-solve as the best of plumbers and fence designers do while also learning to produce and create in the clouds?

** I first wrote and published this at Edurati Review.