Getting to Yes

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Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.

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When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.

 

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Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

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Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

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Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.

 

Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

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Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.

 

And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.

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There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

Three Stories: One Influence

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Leadership Academy

One:

I am listening to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. It’s full of research about all the topics that educators discuss when they see children, adolescents, or teens who struggle because of challenges attributed to home environmental stressors. It’s painful to listen. Much of what Tough reports as empirical research represents the common sense understanding of educators who know children growing up with an overload of allostatic factors increasing chronic stress will typically experience disproportionate academic and behavioral difficulties as they move through school. They are more likely to be labeled special education students, need behavioral intervention, or be suspended, expelled, or drop out of school than their middle class peers – and far more often than children living in poverty who do not experience intense familial stress factors.

While poverty is often a root cause of chronic stress factors, there are children living in poverty who succeed. Such children live in homes where strong, functional attachments to a significant adult make a positive difference for them. I was struck by a body of research reported in How Children Succeed related to attachment theory. Intervention that helps young mothers, at-risk because of their own stress factors, to learn positive skills to nurture infants and toddlers actually makes a greater difference in the success of young children entering school than other interventions, including building early cognitive skills. In fact, according to Tough, kindergarten teachers in large numbers report that it’s not children who struggle to learn the alphabet or numbers that’s the biggest challenge for them as educators – it’s children who lack basic capabilities to build positive peer relationships, relate to adults, and control anger impulses.

When children have high allostatic loads, they enter school with chronic stress. Their symptoms often continue unabated through school impacting their capability to hold what they learn in working memory, a basic prefrontal-cortex function that supports learning in school.

I wonder how our at-risk children’s success in school might be different if an intensive, national initiative to provide deep parenting intervention occurred? How might breaking the cycle of chronic stress in children change their emotional and learning trajectory as they move through school? Imagine how different their learning experiences could be.

Two:

Seamus Heaney died this week. I often have thought of the great poets as being the best of farmers who till words into soil, then reap poetry from the land. Heaney’s gift for  sowing words created poetry that fed the world. His perfect command of word is a great loss in an imperfect world.

However, I am comforted that somewhere out there another great poet grows into her or his own, finding pathways to expression because a teacher creates space for children to explore language as more than an information base or a response to a writing prompt. Perhaps, just as Heaney did, such a child struggles to make sense of an imperfect world, digging as poets do when they reach down to plant earth with words.  Every class contains poets, and somewhere out there the next version of  a Seamus Heaney one day will emerge to “gobsmack” us with his or her unique talent to till image into verse.

writer

It’s our role as educators to support children to sustain their creative passions and find their own voices through art. After all, poets,  storytellers, artists, musicians and sculptors define the bandwidth of our culture, not politicians, economists, or CEOs.  Because of artists, we see and hear a different world, one filled with color, symphony, story, and dance. We may need STEM to save the world, but, I for one, believe we also need artists to advance humanity and civilization even more.

Three:

I talked with a teacher, @hobbes4564,  this past week who just blogged about how she is  helping children learn about friendship. Beth’s a fabulous teacher who engages kids in powerful ways through old and new learning tools. Her third grade kids are maniacal bloggers who routinely log and share posts and comments with other children all over our district – and the country. She’s started a new activity, “Challenge Friday”, that builds from her love, and the children’s, of Legos as learning tools. Last week their challenge was to build a working lever made of Legos and use it to lift a 50 g block. It was fascinating to watch children work in pairs to explore concepts of force, load, and fulcrum as they experimented with their Lego bricks.

However, her goals for learning go far beyond cognitive skill acquisition. This weekend, she reflected upon how she is helping children who come from a mix of countries and localities to make and sustain friendships. Playful Lego work in her class offers not just opportunities for children to learn new content and skills, but also to build friendships, learn new language and express themselves artistically. I loved listening to the children talk with each other when I visited. One child asked another, “how do you know what to build?” The other child responded simply, “I see a picture of it in my mind.”

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In watching children in her class work so carefully and civilly together, I am struck that this educator is teaching them both how to succeed and to become artists in their own right, even as they create and build STEM principles with their Legos. I’d love to be able to bottle her expertise as an educator – her understanding of how children succeed is worth its weight in gold.

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Together these three somewhat disparate stories that I experienced last week connect for me the importance of our influence as educators beyond building cognitive skills and knowledge among young people we teach. We educators aren’t miracle workers, but we do make a difference with children who need strong, positive, trusting relationships with adults in their lives. Not every child will grow up to become a great poet, but every child needs to grow up with a communicative voice.  Not every child represents chronic risk factors, but all need to know they’ve adults in their corner.

We hold the power to help all children gain a sense of strong personal voice, sustain curiosity, develop caring relationships, maintain well-being, and explore learning through multiple pathways.  We are responsible for nurturing the complete child, not just their cognitive functions, using every possible strategy to protect children with allostatic risk factors – not add to their debilitating stress during their hours with us. In doing these things, we gift children with competencies that equip them to succeed in life – as parents, community members, co-workers, and friends.

That’s why I believe educators represent the most important profession in the world.

hollymead

Helping Hands

World Peace Game: No Standard Problems – or Solutions

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel by bus to the Pentagon with John Hunter, career teacher and creator of the World Peace Game, twenty-three of the latest crop of 4th grade world peace gamers, 2 teacher-colleagues, the children’s principal, and Chris Farina, documentary film maker of “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Accomplishments.”

The kids were invited guests of the Office of The Secretary of Defense and they arrived at school early that morning with dossiers in hand containing their white papers and questions on the critical issues of the world. After the children settled into seats on the bus, John chatted with me for a few minutes about the trip, visiting some education topics near and dear to our district’s work to ensure all young people engage in work that engages, challenges, and provides choice and opportunity to pursue passions and interests. John shared first how the children prepared for the trip and his philosophy for “unfettering” their learning.

“Each child was expected to do extensive research and develop a white paper and questions about countries they represented so that they could engage intelligently with adult policy experts on topics of interest. They are people – they are young people -in the learning adventure, their uniqueness appears; there’s no separation or line of authority they aren’t afraid to broach when asking questions and seeking information. When we take the fetters off and the false boundary lines and parameters , they have an unfettered imagination and ability and when given the chance in their own young, youthful way they can develop things that we adults in our staid and traditional way might not even see. “

John Hunter’s been in a Ted Talk – generated international limelight for the last two years for a couple of reasons. First, he represents for all educators the best of creative genius and fabulous facilitation of learning among young people. John also happened to be in the right place at the right time when Chris was looking for a film to make. John is extraordinary, no question about it. He’s the best of ambassadors for extraordinary educators who create amazing learning spaces for children in public schools everywhere. He’s quietly reflective and a wise practitioner of the art and science of teaching. But, when he speaks, others can’t help but listen.  I sometimes say that all teachers who love to teach, love to learn, and value the capabilities of all young people have a bit of John Hunter in them.

“Children show us what they can do when we remove anything from in front of them that might get in their way as people. They come to us as experts in something already. We need to use those strengths and build on those strengths.”

The daylong trip to the Pentagon makes for an interesting story about the current crop of world peace game fourth grader gamers who engaged with twenty-five high level staffers from generals to top policy makers. They even had a chance to chat about global warming, office phones, and other topics of interest for almost half an hour with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I’m not sure anyone else got that kind of time from him that day, but the children did.  Senior policymakers in the Under Secretary’s departments engaged in dialogue with the fourth graders about world issues from the current problems generated by the conflict between Israel and Iran, China’s relationship with Tibet, Yemen’s terrorists’ camps, Mexican drug wars along our border, and, the mistreatment of Syrian people by Bashir al-Assad. They then participated in a simulated press conference in the Pentagon Press Room with Press Secretary George Little.

Not much of what these children demonstrated in their learning could, or would, be assessed on the typical standardized tests they take each spring. John has thought a lot about assessment over the years and what it really means in the big scheme of lifelong learning. He sees a much bigger picture than the current reality educators face today.

“We assess for a unit, a day, a lesson, a week, a month, a year. Interestingly enough, what’s been a revelation to me of recent is that over the 35 years I’ve taught, I’m finding kids are coming back through social media from ten or twenty years ago and talking  about something they learned years ago and saying ‘you said that and I’ve been able to use that in my life.’ What an amazing thing that we educators seem to reach through time – and life becomes the assessment. Perhaps we need to start to open our assessment window beyond our classroom and look at assessment as lifelong.”

It was a wonderful day for me to observe what happens when children have worked with a teacher who has total confidence in their capability (and, no they aren’t all “gifted” by label requirements although no one who watches them can doubt their giftedness as a team of learners) and sets high expectations for a kind of creative and critical thinking work that cannot be measured with 4 choices- one correct response. For over thirty years across multiple school districts, school levels, and demographics, John’s “kids” have consistently performed in ways that transcend the 20th century paradigm for achievement and the accountability outcomes defined for today’s public school learners.

You see, John Hunter is a dreamer. He’s dreamed of no minimums for learning. He’s dreamed of children who will grow up to change the world. He’s dreamed of unlimited opportunities for children who otherwise would be limited by desks in rows and a teacher lecturing them about factoid trivia that represent the unimaginative, de-contextualized instruction to which so many children have been subjected for decades. John encourages children to be imaginative, playful, and passionate about learning. Thus, when they visited the Pentagon, they put themselves on equal footing with adults, a partnership of respectful learning.

“You see the video monitors on the bus. One of the children asked when we got on the bus this morning if we were going to watch a movie. One of the other children said, ‘no, the movie’s in your mind today’… what a great thing that their imagination is their canvas, not some Madison Avenue firm developing their imagination for them…”

John is a believer in the power and voice of children as learners. He sees his job as:

“planting the seed of possibilities in children and connecting them to the larger vision of our country and world… I don’t know the answers to give them. It becomes an adventure for everyone in the classroom everyday. They have to develop their own questions … what they need to know, so they can figure out what other things they need to know.”

Pentagon officials who didn’t know the story of John’s work asked several times if these children were “from private schools.” I proudly told them that these were children from a regular public school and that many more teachers and children just like them were back in schools in our district. They were surprised by the seriousness of the children’s pointed questions, and their public school education.

As one chief policymaker said, “you were fierce in asking senior leaders some very important and tough questions.” It struck all of us that John’s created an environment where children don’t see a hierarchy in their work with their teacher and their classmates. The Pentagon officials considered whether they need to attend less to protocols that block them from challenging each other. It’s a lesson for educators everywhere who dream of children who think independently about challenging problems, not ones looking to the teacher to tell them what to do.

At the end of the day, the children engaged in what’s known as a “hotwash” exercise – one used by Pentagon officials to debrief their own work.  The kids shared feedback for the adult staffers, pulling philosophies from their reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and their own experiences,  “think forward; don’t be afraid to change your plans if what you’re doing isn’t working; remember, war isn’t the answer.”

The staffers, in turn shared what they thought we should hear. Many of them noted that it had been a “favorite day at the Pentagon; I am inspired by these fourth graders; I am reminded of a teacher who inspired me when I was a child….”

Then one policymaker said something which made me stop and think about the accountability movement left over from the 20th century to which the nation’s children are subjected each day.  “We use creativity and imagination every day to solve problems around the world.. we need more people in America who can do what you are doing in your class….”

I’m struck after visiting the Pentagon with twenty-three 4th graders and John Hunter  that there are no standard problems in today’s world- global warming, water problems, economic crises, political differences, war – and no standard solutions. Yet, we educators spend our time teaching kids to pass standardized tests of standardized objectives found inside standardized programs and curricula that demand no creativity or imagination to generate solutions.

Maybe the Department of Education should talk to the Pentagon.

Out of the Quicksand: It’s About Passion not Standardization

The President emphasized the words education and innovation in his State of the Union speech last week. In fact, he used both words in some form at least 10 times each- not necessarily in tandem. While I didn’t do a frequency count of all the words used multiple times, those two certainly jumped out as I listened to his words.

The President's Speech

He also spoke to America’s frustration with losing our balance because we didn’t see change coming. It’s as if we woke up one day and the world had changed without asking our permission. We just didn’t anticipate the shift of global sands under our nation’s feet as the rules of the game changed that govern our economic survival.

We, the current crop of Americans, don’t remember a time when we weren’t the world leader we are today. None among us are old enough to remember the 19th century preeminent status of the British Empire as the world power prior to its decline in the first half of the 20th century. Many of us are too young to have processed the truly recent emergence of the United States as a “super” power in the second half of the 20th century.  We’ve grown up assuming that’s just the way it is and has always been – America leading the world.

Connecting with China circa 1972

Times have changed though. Instead of a universal confidence in our capability to negotiate our way through tough times, some feel we’re sliding into a pit of quick sand and we’re not sure where to grab a handle to pull ourselves out.  The President seems to think our capability to educate and innovate might provide that handle.

In concept, these two words do feel like the right handle when used together. In reality, I don’t see viable and multiple pathways being applied in the President’s education office to link those two words in a meaningful way in our schoolwork. Instead, the “trickle down” economics of USDOE’s approach to public education feels disconnected from the work of those who labor out in the field (with the exception of the National Educational Technology Plan which I see as USDOE’s best work).

At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best educators in the field could get behind a grassroots-driven plan to support radical invention of a public education system for contemporary learners and learning.  They gather all the time now at teach-meets, un-conferencesonline in social learning media networks, and in formal settings such as this weekend’s EduCon 2.3. They also understand we can’t get to innovation without going through invention as a precursor process.

Unfortunately, the time to simply do what inventors do – think, consider ideas, try things out, talk to others, reflect, modify, figure out possibilities, do something – just doesn’t come often in their world of full time jobs. They need time and the space to do the work of radical invention. If anyone wonders why it doesn’t happen, shadow our best educators for just one day. They need the attention from the private sector to support them in DARPA-like invention work.

The Internet: a DARPA invention

We need radical invention learning models, but we need them working in just plain “old” schools that represent the range of demographics and facilities distributed across the country.  Unless we’re committed to wholesale replacement of the buildings, learners who attend America’s schools, and those who teach, we need to spend concentrated time and resources working as inventors in the schools we have.  The charter concept isn’t bad. We need customized options for kids. It just won’t change the game for the vast majority of America’s millions of students.  All of our students need schools that operate like the best functional communities. All of them deserve the best we have to offer in schools, teachers, and resources. All of them deserve learning spaces where they can pursue their passions.  It’s not about providing that opportunity. It’s about providing that reality.

This year, I’ve spent a number of hours in job-embedded “invention” work with teams of elementary educators. Some of these teams are from upper middle class community schools. Some are from schools populated with children who represent either the urban or rural poor. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common.

They all know they want more for the children they serve. More creative time to think and act upon big learning ideas. More opportunities for project-based learning work for all students, but especially for those trapped in the molasses-slow drudgery of remediation and intervention. More spaces to connect with like-minded educators who also dream different ways to reach out and offer children a handle out of the quick sand of the 20th century testing curricula 1.0 that we’ve adopted across the nation.

Their rooms and schools may look different because of the resources they have available. Most live in the time capsule of boxed places created in the 20th century, but not all. Some have access to additional parent-driven funding for resources about which others can only dream. Their worlds aren’t the same and most likely never will be. Yet, they all see themselves as inventors, creators, designers, builders, and innovators in the learning places where they’ve landed. They just need time, permission, and support to engage.  Each of their inventions may be different and that’s okay. What we need to scale is more creative customization aiming towards passion-based learning inside all our schools, not rote standardization of a one-size fits all model.

What's Your Favorite Learning Experience in This School

We hear that teachers of poor children should be able to propel children over the testing hurdles we place in front of them at equal rates to those of teachers whose children have come to appreciate the Paris Hilton over spring break. But, their worlds are not the same. Their academic and social background knowledge is not the same. The resources their teachers have access to are not the same. The places they call home or school are not the same. While we can find both wealthy and poor schools that have figured out the buttons to punch to get great pass rates, we have not come close to leveling the playing field in the provision of the rich and varied learning experiences that those of privilege have come to appreciate in the schools they attend- public or private. If we believe in the past three Presidents’ public commitment that all children must realize their maximal potential through the work of our system, then we have work to do, not just in schools, but also in every other service sector of our government.

In Life Magazine 1958: Kids Create "Space" Helmets

It’s not Sputnik rocket science to figure out President Obama’s correct in saying that extending the handle of education and innovation provides Americans with the best chance to escape the quick sand into which we are sinking globally. However, innovation of education won’t happen without an infusion of passion into the work of the millions of teachers who serve our young people.  From my observations, I’ve come to see passion for learning and standardization of learning structures and processes as representing an inversely proportional relationship.  The more our schools become standardized, the less passion is evident in the work of teachers and students. In other words, standardization drains passion from our schools. Unfortunately, without passion-driven learning, innovation just won’t occur, not in any field- but especially not in education.

learning passion vs school standardization

The accountability pathway we’re on won’t ever lead us to passion-driven learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Children who get a chance to pursue interests- the things they love- generate a passion for learning in themselves and others. When given the opportunity to create, design, build, work with each other and share their interests and passion, their excitement about learning creates a contagion of creativity among peers and their teachers.  If what America needs the most is to fuel our next generation economy, then we better focus on how we set the stage from the ground up for both children and educators to get passionate about their learning work.  One thing’s for sure. More focus on the standardization of schools, curricula, classrooms, and teachers with the goal of more children passing more high stakes multiple choice tests will not sustain America’s children in their journey towards a 22nd century world.

The Intersection of Tech and Passion-Driven Learning