Throwing out roots and building community: PD that transforms

I want kids to love learning. I want them to be curious and long for discovery. I want them to ponder big questions and think deeply about life. I want them to challenge assumptions and conventional thinking. I want them to connect, in meaningful ways, with people who are different from them. I want them to read incredible books that make them laugh and cry and cheer. All of these things that I want for kids require a certain amount of risk and vulnerability for students. Before any of this can happen, we have to build a community and establish culture. Failure is an important part of learning, but doing it in front of others can be incredibly scary. It’s the reason that we reserve the first two weeks of school for “detox.” We have to help kids “detox” from some assumptions that they may have about school, learning, and themselves. We have to help them remember that they are created uniquely and as a result have different gifts, strengths, and weaknesses.

This year before the school year even started for students, we worked on building community and culture. We started our professional development day as a staff paddle boarding in beautiful Evergreen, Colorado. This is something that most of us hadn’t done before, an opportunity to do something new together, to reflect and enjoy the beauty and just be. There was a lot of laughter, some tip-overs into the drink, and moments of pure peacefulness. It was a great way for us to build community, as a staff, to be vulnerable together as we learned something new, and to laugh together.

Team Anastasis professional development: paddle boarding

Our next community building activity was brilliant, @matthewquigley came up with the idea of stopping at every student’s house with a surprise to help build excitement for students and staff. We often feed off of each other’s ideas and before I knew it, we had signs made up, popcorn ordered and houses mapped out. After paddle boarding, we hopped in the school van and delivered our surprises. The joy on kids faces was the highlight of the day! We documented our progress on Instagram and Facebook and before long, students were following our progress, commenting on our posts, and waiting in anticipation for us to get to their house. It was outstanding!  By the end of the day we were exhausted and cranky (that may have just been me!). The payoff of that exhaustion came the first day of school. The excitement to be back was palpable. The community that normally takes a few months to build felt instant. Here we are starting our second week of school and it already feels like we are in a good flow. The kids are working together in community and willing to take risks and be vulnerable during our detox week. This is professional development that transforms. It changes the course of the year, not because you’ve learned how to use the latest technology that accompanies the new curriculum, but because it focuses on humanity. It builds community.

Building school community                 Building school community Anastasis StyleBuilding community Anastasis style

I often talk about the need to preserve and honor humanity in education. It seems that far too regularly, our discussions about education and reform are centered on scores, curriculum, rigor and standards. Our conversation begins in the wrong place. Education is really about kids. It’s really about helping kids explore and understand the world; how to live and work in community. Why do we strip the humanity from education and focus on the rest? When you start with the humanity, the focus of the first weeks of school isn’t on the classroom decor, or the standards, or how you are going to meet Race to the Top requirements this year. When the focus is the child, you consider the excitement, anticipation, and nervousness that they are feeling about the start to a new year. You start to consider how to build on the excitement, ease the nerves and build community before the year starts. You take the time to remind kids of their genius.

The teachers at Anastasis are the most incredible people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing They see needs of kids and meet them. They host summer virtual book clubs to keep kids connected and reading over the summer. They meet families at summer concerts to help ease the anxiety of a new year. They host alumni meet ups. They write letters to every single student. They work side by side with families in the school garden. AMAZING! Our teachers and staff focus on the right things first, knowing that everything else we do in the school year will build on that foundation.

As you get ready for a new school year, take a moment to be mindful of what your students are feeling. We do so much to prepare the learning space and curriculum, what are we doing to focus on the humanity? What are we doing to prepare our students (and their families) for the year? How can we meet kids where they are and love them?

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.” -Amelia Earhart, Magic City Morning Star, June 1, 2005.

That pretty well sums it up!

Getting Unstuck: Rule Number 1

The first rule of starting a school: surround yourself by incredible, gifted people.

We are continually reaping the benefits of following rule number one. Last week, one of those incredible and gifted people gave us a gift. A book called The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

There are times when we get so stuck in our own heads, we can’t get out of our own thinking and gain a different perspective. I’ve felt mired in this spot for the past few months. I can clearly see that something needs to happen to keep us moving forward, but I couldn’t see what that next step was. I felt like every decision that was being made kept us going around in circles rather than moving forward. This book has felt like clouds breaking and I feel optimistic that we can keep kicking butt and changing the world. Happy day!

The 4 Disciplines of Execution isn’t a cure-all, but it has given me a fresh perspective on the problem that’s been staring me in the face.

Matthew and I achieved our first Wildly Important Goal by starting Anastasis. Our goal: to treat every child with dignity as a unique individual. We found a dream team of educators. We stepped away from one-size all curriculum and a one-size fits all assessment system. We do the inefficient EVERY SINGLE DAY to ensure that we are dignifying our students. So much of what we have done is innovative. We have charted new courses. We’ve stepped into the unknown. Somewhere along the way this innovation became the new normal. It’s often hard to remember that what our kids experience is vastly different from what kids in other schools experience. What a great problem to have!

Choosing the next Wildly Important Goal has been difficult. I think this is probably a common problem for entrepreneurs. Everything feels equally important because we see the vision of what is to come. The trouble is that when everything is the most important, nothing can get done. Hence the spinning in around in circles. We are choosing to fight every battle at once instead of focusing first on the battles that will help us win the war. This is not a revolutionary idea, but when I read it last night it was like the little GPS in my brain connected and announced, “recalculating.”

If every other area of Anastasis Academy remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area that would have the greatest impact? That is the question I’m asking as I focus in on our next Wildly Important Goal.

I can’t help but parallel the stuck place that I’ve been to the stuck place that many educators operating within a system find themselves. As a teacher, you can clearly see the shortcomings of the system. You may feel trapped and limited by that system. What if today you asked yourself, “if every other area of my classroom remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area I could change that would have the greatest impact?” What Wildly Important Goal could you make on behalf of your students? Could you change the way you assess? The way that you teach? The way that you use classroom space? The way that you talk about assessment? The classroom relationship dynamics?

Choose one thing.

“The sun’s scattered rays are too weak to start a fire, but once you focus them with a magnifying glass they will bring a paper to flame in seconds.”

What is your goal for your classroom?  What one thing can you do to focus your efforts that will ignite a fire?

“To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you’ve never done before.”

Go out and focus on the Wildly Important!

Thanks for the book Matt!

Education’s Magic Bullet: happy hour

Common culture in a school is incredibly important. If you know, or have followed me online, for any amount of time, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard me say it.

When schools have a strong culture, everything else seems to work. New directions, adoption of new policy, and even technology integration goes well when there is a strong culture underpinning it.  When I was an educational consultant, I noticed this more acutely than ever before.  There are those schools that you walk into and everything seems to be working for them.  You get the distinct feeling that no matter what is thrown their way, they would end up on top.  Other schools have all the right buzz words, but felt totally dead inside.  These are the “junkies” of schools.  They are constantly looking for their next fix.  New curriculum, new administration, better data, different testing, more technology integration.  When you look at what they propose on paper it can look alluring and like it will work.  Finally, that elusive magic bullet. But despite all the right buzz-words, despite the latest and greatest new technology, it remains distinctly empty.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that what schools lack most is strong culture. There is no strength and camaraderie among the staff, the students are lacking a model of what strong community looks like, and as a result the school is left looking for their next fix.  If you don’t have a healthy culture, those fixes are, at best, temporary.  Band-aids.

What Anastasis has going for it, above all else, is a strong culture.  As a staff, we genuinely enjoy each other. We look forward to coming to work because that is where friends are.  It isn’t that we all agree completely on everything (if you want proof-mention recess duty or prototype lab organization), it isn’t that we all teach the same way, it isn’t that we all use social media to connect with other educators, it isn’t that we have the best*fill in the blank*. What makes our culture strong is that we start from a place of camaraderie and friendship. That friendship leads to great inside jokes, support for one another, lots of laughter, and trickles into a culture for the school.

Matthew and I started Anastasis with a vision and a dream.  We didn’t stop there. We’ve invited every one of those we surrounded ourselves with to be a part of that vision. Then we asked that they would dream with us.  I’ve just created a community vision board on the wall of our office where we can share those dreams visually. When everyone who comes in our school can see our vision, it is more likely to be supported, encouraged and, fulfilled.

The number one catalyst of this strong culture: shared meals and happy hours. Really. There it is, the magic bullet for education (wonder if the secretary of education will ever pick up on THAT as a policy shift). When you share a meal or a few drinks, you start to learn about each other beyond the walls of the school. Inevitably you chat about what is happening in the school as well as in life. You will make time to smile at each other, chat in the hallways, share more freely.  Students pick up on this. The atmosphere feels lighter, happier. Students see community modeled. Now, anything new that comes your way is suddenly doable, because you are doing it together. You are prepared to really support each other.

I often hear, “well sure you can have strong culture-you started the school, but you have NO idea what I am dealing with.”  You’re right, I don’t know what your exact situation is.  But here is what I do know, your biggest road block is you. Culture is possible everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are an administrator or a science teacher. You don’t have to have administrative support to change culture, you just do it. Invite your colleagues out for happy hour or dinner. Do it regularly. (To see how I did this BEFORE I started my own school, check out this post.)

There is a meme that is going around the edu blogosphere lately. It reminds me of chain letters that I used to get (except without the threat of bad luck FOREVER at the end). The idea behind the meme is to get to know educational bloggers better. Which is pretty great. But what are we doing to get to know the wonderful people in the classroom down the hall better?

Little known fact about me: I am REALLY uncomfortable in social situations. I would so much rather meet with a few good friends than attend a get together with lots of people.  I think it boils down to my aversion to small talk. Hate. It. This is probably also the reason I have a love/hate relationship with conferences. Fear of the moments of small talk. Ew. In the beginning, building culture sometimes looks like small talk. You don’t really know each other yet so you are reduced to some uncomfortable chit-chat. But do that more than once, and you run out of chit-chat. Real conversations start to happen.  I’ve now known the majority of Anastasis staff for 3 years. We still learn about each other. I asked them questions from the meme blog post I was tagged in and learned things I didn’t know. Building community.

In addition to meals and happy hour, Anastasis staff goes to see movies together (sometimes we call it professional development).  We do yoga in the park together during the summer. A few of us started walking/running through the cemetery after school together (of course we use the Zombie Run app). Sometimes we shoot skeet together or paint together. We send each other stupid video clips and songs and pictures. We throw each other cat showers. We are silly and vulnerable.

Building culture isn’t about making everyone think the way you do. It is about doing life together and starting to understand their perspective. It is about building friendships and community that spills into what happens during the school day.  Convincing someone to use social media as a method of professional development is a whole lot easier when you have an inside joke to share with them via social media. Working together to better your school is more effective when you are dreaming together.

This isn’t impossible. You don’t have to wait for your administration to do this for you. There is no permission to seek. You have to decide it is important and you need to make the first step to making a personal connection.  Watch how it ripples and spreads through your school. A close community of educators builds a powerful culture of learning and change. It also makes everything a whole lot more fun.

A strong culture is absolutely transformational. When you have a community that works together, it changes the education conversation.

As it turns out, education’s magic bullet is happy hour.

Cheers.

 

 

And now, because I was tagged in some “Getting to know you” memes, I give you the following (Thanks @mrskmpeters, you are wonderful!).

11 Random Facts About Me1. As stated previously, small talk is SO painful. I wish I could avoid it for the remainder of my time on earth.

2. My first boyfriend and kiss was my husband @jtenkely…it was in college.

3. No, I wasn’t one of those girls who had crazy ideas about not dating…I just didn’t get asked out in high school. We’ll call it Ugly Duckling Syndrome.

4. I legitimately have taxidermiphobia. It is an actual thing. I immediately get flop sweat and hyperventilate in the face of taxidermy.

5. I’m trying to overcome said phobia with fake taxidermy. It started with a picture that I made myself and has progressed to a metal deer head hanging in my kitchen. (Jury is still out if this therapy is working.)

6. I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Finding a great flavor combination is so happy.

7. When I was a kid, my dad owned a wooden model rocket company called “Retro Rocket Works.” I spent a few summers at LDRS (large dangerous rocket ships).

8. When I grow up I want to be a rocket scientist. And a writer. And a graphic artist.

9. I have rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve had it since I was 9. It is a stupid disease and makes things like buttoning your own pants impossible some days.

10. I live with the MOST incredibly talented person I’ve ever met (that is saying something because my parents are pretty dang talented…see Koostik).  I seriously believe that @jtenkely can do anything. He is like an incredibly good-looking creative super hero. And he loves me…winning.

11. I love crafting and making things. In my own mind I’m the upgraded version of Martha Stewart.

 

Questions from Kristina:

1. Favorite travel destination: I love Napa…it is so low-key, beautiful  and wonderful. Wine is also involved.

2. How many passport stamps do you have? ummm, I think somewhere around 16… I’ve obviously not kept track. Most of them are to England, one to France, one to Israel, and a few Mexico.

3. Dogs or cats?  Dogs…that act like cats.  Shiba Inu is best of both worlds and SO stinking adorable.  See my instagram for proof :)

4. Italian or Mexican food?  If I’m cooking- Italian, If we are eating out- Mexican.

5. If only one social media outlet: Pinterest. I get sucked right in. I LOVE Twitter, but Pinterest totally feeds my inner visual geek.

6. Favorite book in 2013: I have to say, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our 8th graders read it, I read it as a result of a conversation I caught.  Brilliant.

7. What makes you happy? Lots of things. Sunsets are pretty great. @jtenkely is a sure bet.

8.  Favorite Friends episode: Dang, this is a tough one. I like the one where Rachel and Phobe run.

9. Choice of professional development, traditional or edcamp?  I like the more unconventional best.  I’m a little bit of an educational heretic.

10. If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about? My TED talk would be about starting a school. It would be epic.

11. Favorite classroom stories: Student came into my computer lab, “Mrs. Tenkely, can I lick the chocolate off of my headphones?” Me: “Why is there chocolate on your headphones?” Student (very matter of fact): “They were in my pocket.”  Me: crickets…   Student: “I hide chocolate in my pockets because I’m not allowed to have it. It gets melty so I can stick my hand in my pocket and sneak it all day. I accidentally put my headphones in my pocket. So can I lick it off?”   Me: Yep, go for it…chocolate shouldn’t go to waste!

 

Your turn. Instead of tagging educational bloggers, I want you to have these conversations with others in your school. Invite them out for a drink or a meal. Talk. Build community and culture.

Redefining success

Success

To laugh often and love much

To win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children

To earn the appreciation of honest critics

endure the betrayal of false friends

To appreciate beauty

To find the best in others

To leave the world a bit better

whether by a healthy child,

a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition

To know one life has breathed easier

because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

[Attributed to Elisabeth-Anne Anderson Stanley]

Last week, two Anastasis alumni visited us after school. “It feels so good here. It’s like I can actually breathe.”- Lexi

Wow. What a statement! We’ve heard this before. It may have been worded differently, or expressed through actions, but the sentiment is the same. Anastasis is a place to breathe easier.

Yesterday I was reading “Start Something That Matters” by Blake Mycoskie (chief shoe giver at TOMS), in it he tells the story of Frederick W. Taylor.  Taylor wrote a book called “The Principles of Scientific Management” that became the bible for the industrial age workplace. Unfortunately, this thought process bled into the education system as well. Mycoskie writes:

“Fundamental to his theory were the following ideas: Workers are inherently lazy and do not enjoy their jobs. Managers should break down work into the smallest possible tasks and supervise and control everything their workforce does. Workers should be paid according to their performance over a set amount of time. Workers are most productive when driven by monetary incentives.”

Look familiar? How many students have you heard lament that they have to come to school? Do your students count down to breaks? Do they live for unexpected days off? How many teachers talk about how lazy their students are in the teacher’s lounge?

How do your classrooms look? Do teachers routinely break down every task and project? Is every single learning objective prescribed by teachers and then supervised and controlled so that it looks perfect? I can’t tell you how many curricula I’ve looked through where this is rampant. I can’t tell you the number of primary classrooms I’ve been in where every shape for the project is pre-cut out of construction paper and the goal is to make it look exactly like the example the teacher made. No freedom, no exploration. No trust that students have the ability to learn and be curious on their own.

How about the belief that workers (students) must be driven by monetary incentives? That sounds like the current grading system to me. “If you don’t comply, you will be punished by an F.” If you play by our rules, your parents can be the proud owners of a “my student is an honor student” bumper stickers.

Is there anything more dehumanizing than this method of compliance? This method guarantees one thing: students who don’t want to be at school, and have the same shallow understanding of the world as all of the other students in the system.

As I was reading this, I was sitting in Starbucks watching a new round of employees being trained. The trainer has given each employee a piece of paper with a script of what they should memorize during the training. He walks them through the steps of what their day should look like over and over. As he does this, he quizzes each of them. He walks them over to the condiment bar, “You need to change out 3 things every time you are here. Whatever is low, you will need to restock. Check the creamers, if they seem low you will need to change them.” Then he asks a 20-something girl a question, “Why do you think it is important to check the creamer and change it often?” This poor girl absolutely froze. She didn’t bother to look down at her sheet to find out if the answer was there (I’m sure it was). She looked like a deer caught in the headlights. In my mind I was silently screaming at her, “FOOD safety! Bacteria and food born illness if you leave it to sit all day.” She said none of these things. Instead the trainer got a blank look and, “umm, I’m not sure.”

I’m convinced that this is the outcome of an education system that lives by, “The Principles of Scientific Management.” Because the answer had not yet been given to her, she had NO idea how to answer the question. Not even a guess. I’ve never worked at Starbucks, but I could use enough deductive reasoning and thought to connect the question with a reasonable answer. At the very least I would have frantically searched the sheet my trainer gave me for a clue.

It makes sense to me when alumni come back and say, “I feel like I can breathe here.” At Anastasis we give students freedom. Then we teach them how to properly manage that freedom. We show them the beauty of curiosity. We help them ask questions and search out answers. We engage them in discussion. We restore humanity. The alumni student went on to explain that the pace feels frantic in their high school. “But it’s not like it is frantic because we are learning more, it is like all of this information for the sake of information. I grew so much more here because you guys actually let us explore and be interested in things.”

As an educator my heart rejoices that they can recognize what we have done for them. But for these girls? I’m sad for them. I’m sad that they aren’t daily in an environment where their humanity is honored. I’m sad that they are going through the motions to get the grades to move into the next system.

How do you define success in your classroom? Do you look to test scores, how many of your students have made honor role, how many students turned in their homework on time?

At Anastasis Academy we define success differently. We want to laugh and love much. We want to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children. We want to appreciate beauty of learning. We want students to find the best in everyone they meet. We want to leave the world better. We want to grow things we can eat and share the bounty with others. We want to redeem the social condition, restore humanity. We want kids to breathe easier.

Success.

Starting a school in the age of open and freely shared

So often in education we hear the excuse: it’s too expensive to implement. There just isn’t any money. Budgets are tight.

That’s not an excuse I’m willing to accept. I know what is possible when you start with NO money. I know that lives are changed as a result of followed dreams and passion. I know that real success has nothing to do with a bank account.

While money is helpful, it isn’t what is holding you back.

Matthew and I started Anastasis Academy with no money. No endowments, no big donors, no one backing us financially. We started with ZERO dollars. Well, not exactly zero, we spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 out of our own pockets to start a school. That $140 paid for copies of information for the info nights we held, it paid for our business license, and it paid for our domain name and one month of hosting. We hired teachers before we knew the money would be there. We leased space from a church trusting that we would have money to give them.

We decided we would be a tuition-based school, not because we set out to be a private school (we believe that EVERY child deserves access to the model we offer at Anastasis), but because it was the path of least resistance. We decided to base our tuition on per pupil spending in the district we are in. We wanted to show that this model of learning could be done anywhere, money isn’t the issue. As families signed up to be a part of our school, we collected a $500 enrollment fee. This is what ensured that we had enough money to get through the first month of school. We still pride ourselves in not spending any more than we have. We operate within a balanced budget. Is it tight? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely.

Money isn’t what is holding you back.

We live in an incredible age. The age of open and freely shared. Truthfully, it is this age that made our thriving school possible. We take resourcefulness very seriously around Anastasis. It is a attribute that we strive to pass on to our students (not always successfully!). There are tools that we use that have continued to make what we do possible. Best of all, they are free. They make resourcefulness easy. Below are the tools we highly recommend for any school looking to be better stewards of money for the population it serves:

  • Wiggio- Wiggio is a tool I’m surprised more people don’t know about.  It makes it easy to work in groups and get things done! Matthew and I used Wiggio a LOT in the early days. We hosted virtual meetings and conference calls, created to-do lists and assigned tasks, sent emails/texts/voice messages as needed, uploaded a variety of files to shared folders so we had easy access, managed events with a shared calendar, and hosted polls. Wiggio existed before Google plus, at the time, it was absolutely the BEST tool to do all of the things we needed to do to get up and running. And it is free. It also had great integration with Zoho which we used a lot of!
  • Zoho- Like Google Docs, Zoho lets you create documents that are stored in the cloud and easy to share. Best of all, they have tons of business tools that made the business side of starting a school infinitely easier for newbies. We are two educators who started a school, we needed something to help out with the business side of things. Cue Zoho. As I mentioned before, Zoho also had easy integration with Wiggio. Win!
  • WordPress- I can’t stress enough how critical WordPress was to us starting a school. It was as a result of this very blog (hosted free on WordPress) that our school was started. A parent of a student that I had previously taught read through a post where I detailed this crazy idea to start a school. The next day, I got a call from her and another parent who told me emphatically that they were ready to sign up our first 5 students. WordPress has continued to be critical for us as we connect with the larger world of education. We host all of our blogs through WordPress (or edublogs for students) and continue to use it to share what we are up to on a regular basis. Our school blog is also a free WordPress blog (http://standagain.wordpress.com)
  • Wix- Wix is one of my all time favorite finds. Wix made it possible for me to sit in my kitchen and create our website (http://anastasisacademy.com) without being embarrassed by my lack of html skills. When you have a website that looks legit, people believe that you are. Thanks to Wix, we didn’t have to hire anyone to design our site. I still build and maintain the Anastasis website. Thank you Wix!
  • Edu 2.0- Edu 2.0 is our learning management system. It provides us with a walled community where we can share announcements with students and families, students can blog, we can create class forums and groups, we can keep a shared calendar for all of our events and information (important when every class takes a field trip once a week!), and students/parents/teachers can send messages through.
  • Twitter- Twitter is our favorite way to share what we are doing (in bite sized chunks) and learn from others. I learn more on Twitter in a week than I did in 4 years of formalized education. Seriously, if you don’t have a personal learning network on Twitter, do it now! Any time I’m at a loss for how to solve something, I reach out to a community of experts and am never disappointed. Twitter is a constant source of inspiration and keeps what we do at Anastasis cutting edge every day.
  • Facebook- Facebook helps us connect with our families. We created a Facebook page for Anastasis and it has been a great way to share with families. Facebook helps us to foster community and culture at Anastasis. We share news, great education articles we find, video, pictures, etc. on our Facebook page. Added benefit, whenever we have a snow day, the kids are first to know because they see it on Facebook. :)
  • Skype- Skype has helped us in numerous ways. The first year, it allowed us to interview teachers from around the world. This is how we interviewed @michellek107 (that brave soul who moved to Colorado just for us!). Skype also keeps us connected to other educators and lets us talk face to face no matter where in the world we are.  We also use Skype in our classrooms to connect to other classrooms. @michellek107 is a big fan of classroom mystery Skype- her kids love it!
  • Google apps/Google plus- SO much of what we do is thanks to Google apps for education. We host all of our school emails through Google apps, we organize email groups, we create/store/share documents through Google apps, we keep a staff calendar, we manage our Chrome books. In short, we could not function without Google apps!
  • Pinterest- Pinterest is, in my opinion, the best thing since sliced bread! I mean, the wealth of ideas alone is worth the hours I spend on Pinterest. What I love about Pinterest is that it isn’t an educational site. Anastasis is a very non-traditional school. If we were limited to what we find on the educational boards on Pinterest, it wouldn’t be very useful for us at all (pinning worksheets is SO dumb, for real!). But we can also serendipitously bump into design, art, music, food etc. THAT we can work with and transform into our own thing. Ideas are sparked and hunches collide in that environment. We don’t purchase ANY curriculum (this is one of the best parts of Anastasis). We aren’t tied down to what a curriculum offers. Instead, we use inquiry to guide our learning (and Common Core Standards) and we go out and find our own resources, and lessons, and ideas. For each inquiry block, I create boards for our teachers, a launching point of ideas. This becomes our curriculum. I can easily create and share boards with students, teachers, and parents through one link. Best of all, it never becomes stagnant because I can continually add to it. As students come up with their own lines of inquiry and passions they would like to pursue, I can continue to share resources. It is accessible on the kids/teachers iPads which is also a win. **Educlipper is also a FANTASTIC tool, we can’t wait for it to work on our iPads!
  • Meraki- Meraki is so much wonderful! At Anastasis, we are a 1:1 iPad school. Students own their iPads, but we needed a way to manage them and push apps to them while the kids were at school. Meraki meets and exceeds all expectations for a device management system. It makes my life (as tech queen) so much easier. I can easily push apps directly to student devices as needed. I can restrict things that I need to, I can share documents, I can troubleshoot remotely, I can send messages directly to an iPad. FREE!!
  • Evernote- Evernote, how I love you! Every student and teacher at Anastasis uses Evernote. We use Evernote as an e-Portfolio to keep all of our work. Evernote is great because it allows students to store even non-digital native work digitally. When students work on something in the prototype lab, they are able to snap a picture of their work and save it digitally as well. There are so many fantastic, also free, apps that make Evernote even more useful. The ability to access Evernote from any device is really helpful when parents want to see what their kids are working on. Evernote also allows teachers to share notebooks and materials as needed. Super helpful in a paperless school!
  • Remind 101- Remind 101 has been a great way for us to quickly communicate with families. We use Remind 101 by classroom to let parents know about  field-trips and any changes in plans. This is an important feature when you have students out of the building once a week! We also use Remind 101 as a school to let parents know when we have a snow day, lock down situation, or any other emergency.
  • Mastery Connect- Our first year, we used Mastery Connect to communicate student progress through standards with our families. We started with Mastery Connect’s free version. Mastery Connect has grown a lot in the last few years. It has some really wonderful additions that make it a great option for grading!
  • YouTube- YouTube has been a great way for us to share videos of the amazing things our kids do and create.
  • Project Gutenberg- When you don’t have a library, eBooks become important! Project Gutenberg has a digital library of more than 30,000 free eBooks to read on the computer or iPad. We also heavily use our local libraries and take many field trips there!
  • The Noun Project- sometimes you need icons for various school projects, signs, etc. Enter The Noun Project. Thousands of icons ready to use! We use them for classroom signs and projects.
  • Compete and Quantcast- these tools tell me how many monthly visits other private schools’ websites are getting and the search terms that bring them the most traffic. This helps me tailor our Google ads so that I don’t waste time with so much guessing. If it works for them, it can work for us, too.
  • Making Ideas Happen- the workflow in this book was enormously helpful to me when starting Anastasis. I still use the Action method to keep myself moving forward and making progress. While the book isn’t free, you can check it out at your local library for free. I use http://actionmethod.com regularly.  99u is also a continuous source of good things!

There are truly hundreds more apps, ebooks, audiobooks, videos, etc. that we utilize on a daily basis to keep Anastasis running like a well-oiled machine (you can find them on my other blog, iLearn Technology). There are so many people who share, and share freely. Money isn’t the excuse.

Lives can be changed as a result of passion, resourcefulness and a lot of elbow grease.

Education can be done better, you are the one to do it.

Meaning in the Journey

|Kelly Tenkely|

I always enjoy reading Seth’s Blog.  His posts push me into new thinking and often have me making connections to what we do within education.  His “Tool vs Insight” post was no different, below is an excerpt:

How is your vocabulary? It’s a vital tool, certainly. Do you know these words?

a, after, and, as, die, eternal, first, gets, gun, have, in, is, job, life, me, mouth, my, pushing, saying, step, that, the, to, Tyler, waiter, you.

How about these?

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The first list contains every word in the opening lines from Fight Club, the second is the entire word list from Green Eggs and Ham.

Knowing something (vocabulary) is not the same thing as engaging art and meaning.  You can know each of the words listed above.  You can even identify each of their definitions on a multiple choice test.  Then what?  Without adding meaning to these words, they are pretty uninspiring, meaningless even.  But use some imagination and creativity, and suddenly those words tell a story.  They take us on a journey and suddenly the words matter.  Knowing isn’t enough.  A store house full of facts is pretty useless if students are never asked to actually engage them.

Inquiry is beautiful because it is in the journey of learning that meaning is created.  It is about curiosity, helping kids discover what they are interested in. Not only does inquiry act to engage, it’s actually been proven to be a better entry point into learning.  A Stanford research study into learning as a process revealed the following:

“We are showing that exploration, inquiry and problem solving are not just ‘nice to have’ things in classrooms,” said Blikstein. “They are powerful learning mechanisms that increase performance by every measure we have.”  Pea explained that these results indicate the value for learning of first engaging one’s prior knowledge and intuitions in investigating problems in a learning domain – before being presented with abstracted knowledge. Having first explored how one believes a system works creates a knowledge-building relevance to the text or video that is then presented, he said.”

Inquiry doesn’t make the facts (vocabulary) the focus, but rather gives meaning through the journey, the story, and the art. This can seem a rather obvious conclusion but it is fascinating how many schools strip away the journey to focus on the facts.  This is largely driven by policy and testing that requires the focus to be on the sound bites (facts) of learning at the expense of engaging the journey.  While this approach may result in some great data points that make us feel like we are improving our schools and doing the best for kids, at the end of the day it is an enormous disservice to children. Knowing vocabulary is not the same as experiencing meaning, and story, and art within words. I want children who can engage the world. Who are passionately curious about the world around them and want to dig deeper and add meaning.

Is this photo interesting?  Is it worth engaging?

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

How about this one?

 

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by: http:/flickr.com/photos/alicepopkorn

The first picture is a small portion of the second picture.  When we view something narrowly, we can miss the point entirely.

Too often curriculum narrows down a student’s view of a topic so much that there is nothing left worthy of engagement.  What they end up learning is very specific and doesn’t offer them any context.  Inquiry does the opposite, it gives students something interesting and worthy of engagement.  It shows them a fuller picture that urges them into a place of curiosity.

During our professional development time this week, I asked Anastasis teachers to engage the idea of inquiry.  To consider the role of the teacher, the role of the student, and the role of content within inquiry.

Role of the teacher within inquiry…

  • To be a learner- within inquiry, one of the most essential roles of a teacher is to first be a learner and to be transparent with that learning.
  • Within inquiry, teachers don’t limit learning by beginning with the end in mind.  Sometimes when the teacher has a very specific goal in mind, the rich learning experiences that could occur get sidelined because it isn’t the goal the teacher had for the learning.  For example, our students are learning about agriculture in kindergarten-first grade.  Typical standards for this age group would limit students to identifying parts of a plant and understanding that plants share similar characteristics.  While these are worthy learning goals, it limits the students by only expecting a minimum.  Our students were interested in germination, photosynthesis, and fascinated by the embryo within a seed.  Why limit?
  • To model curiosity and good questioning- students don’t always know how to indulge in their curiosities.  Many times they are so used to being asked closed questions (questions with only one answer), that they don’t know how to be curious by asking open questions (questions with multiple answers, or no concrete answer).  This has to be modeled for kids.
  • To be guides of learning- within the inquiry classroom, teachers are not directors of learning the way they are in a traditional setting.  The role of the teacher here is to be a guide for the learning.  It is being aware of when, and how, students may need direction and guidance.
  • To allow for students to own their learning- sometimes this means getting out-of-the-way of the learner.
  • To be aware- teachers must constantly be aware of and recognize student needs in the learning process.
  • To provide opportunities and help make connections- students don’t know what they don’t know.  It is a teacher’s job to orchestrate opportunities and offer materials that will provide the circumstances where students can explore and discover.
  • To come alongside students to help them learn how to think, NOT what to think.
  • To offer exposure to experts and experiences- as amazing as our teachers are, they can’t be all things to all children.
  • To facilitate students with understanding context and help them with discernment.
  • To offer opportunities for collaboration (both within the school and outside of the school).
  • To value a culture of thinking and curiosity.
  • To value student voice.

Role of learner…

  • To be open to questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • To be willing to fail, and work through the failure (failing forward).
  • To make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • To collaborate with others.
  • To be a risk taker.
  • To be constantly reflecting and re-evaluating.
  • To actively think, not just fact find.
  • To be open to other perspectives and ideas.
  • To be contributing citizens now.
  • To be learners in order to achieve rather than just achieving learning.

Role of content…

  • Content must be evolving, not rigid or stationary. (Boxed curricula is stationary, it doesn’t allow for evolution as students interact with it.)
  • To be applicable, valuable, and transdisciplinary.
  • To allow for student ownership over learning (not predetermined outcomes).
  • To meet social, academic, and personal needs of each student.
  • To be limitless in the learning it allows.
  • To provide the necessary conditions for students to question and experience their learning.
  • To be flexible and transient.
  • “Well, first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum. Curriculum meaning you have to learn this on a given day. Replace it by a system where you learn this where you need it. So that means we’re going to put kids in a position where they’re going to use the knowledge that they’re getting. So what I try to do is to develop kinds of activities that are rich in scientific, mathematical, and other contents like managerial skills and project skills, and which mesh with interests that particular kids might have.”- Seymore Paperet

Educational psychologist Vygotsky said that, “children grow into the intellectual life around them.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88) It is important for educators and parents alike to consider what kind of intellectual life we are providing for children to grow into.  Is it a life full of factual soundbites?  Or is it a life full of experiences, problems to solve, curiosities to indulge, and meaning to discover?  Learning must be approached much more like a journey and less like a finish line.

The vehicle for this journey: inquiry.

Students Have Names

This post is in response to a Newsweek article titled “What if You Could Learn Everything”

“Imagine every student has a tireless personal tutor, an artificially intelligent and inexhaustible companion that magically knows everything, knows the student, and helps her learn what she needs to know.”

 

Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Knewton, has made this artificially intelligent companion a reality for k-12 students.  He has partnered with three curriculum companies including Pearson, MacMillan, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as part of his vision for making Knewton the adaptive learning tool that will make textbooks obsolete.   This “adaptive learning will help each user find the exact right piece of content needed, in the exact right format, at the exact right time, based on previous patterns of use…  Knewton, at base, is a recommendation engine but for learning. Rather than the set of all Web pages or all movies, the learning data set is, more or less, the universe of all facts. For example, a single piece of data in the engine might be the math fact that a Pythagorean triangle has sides in the ratio 3-4-5, and you can multiply those numbers by any whole number to get a new set of side lengths for this type of triangle.”

Knewton works as you might suspect, it begins with a test to see what a student already knows.  Content is pulled in the form of reading and videos to teach the student the things that they do not know.  This is similar to what many other “personalized” adaptive learning systems are doing.  What makes Knewton stand apart is the way that the technology “reads” the student.  As the student is learning, the technology is recording timing, confidence, tabulating each keystroke, and whether the student is guessing or taking their time to answer questions.  So, the more that a student interacts with Knewton, the smarter it becomes and the better that the study recommendations get.

When I see technology like Knewton, it astounds me.  I am always excited about technology that has the potential to improve learning and that feels seamless for humans to interact with.  While the geek in me rejoices that someone is tackling a project this substantial to increase learning, the educator in me is disappointed.  Knewton is all about knowing things. It is about facts.  But, is it really worth all of the effort for technology to train humans to be computers?  I mean, that is essentially what this is doing, no?  We are creating a new factory model, this time the technology is programming us.  Ironically, this is exactly what Knewton’s CEO is working to overcome.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that are worth knowing.  Important, foundational things that shape the rest of what we are able to do.  But, who gets to determine what is foundational and essential for a student to know?  As far as I’m concerned, most curriculum companies are already overreaching in what every single child MUST know.  So, with the vast amount of knowledge available in the world, how do we determine what is really critical for us as a society to know?  The rest of it, while interesting and important, is not necessarily worth forcing.  Even the title of the article, “What if You Could Learn Everything?” makes me cringe.  I don’t want to know everything.  I don’t want to be so crammed full of facts that I can rock a game of Trivial Pursuit, but I can’t actually DO anything useful.

My bigger problem is that once again, we are introducing a tool into education that intends to personalize the learning experience for the student, and in doing so, strips away their humanity.  You see that don’t you?  This is turning children into computers and fact recallers.

But students have names.  They have stories.  Teachers have a different kind of urgency to make things better because we begin and end with students who have names.  This goes beyond the altruistic, “wouldn’t it be great if education worked better” motivation of politicians and curriculum companies who have the ultimate goal of improving our  rank in math and science.  As a teacher, you deal in humanity.  You are concerned with the life that is being shaped.  You want kids to know that they are more than the collection of facts that they have memorized.  The are unique and have something important to offer the world.  That they matter.  Humanity.

So, while I find the concept behind Knewton fascinating, it isn’t what I want for education.  It may fill a need for a piece of the puzzle (namely the foundational knowledge piece), but it isn’t going to make education better if it becomes education.  Being educated is more than just knowing facts (and I’ll remind you again that we already have computers for that).  Being educated means that a child can make connections, synthesize, analyze, evaluate, apply, create something new.  It is learning that is applied.

Technology will play a critical role in the evolution of the classroom.  The role will be different from what Knewton offers.  Instead of assuming that all kids need is facts, the technology will recognize and embrace the humanity.  It will offer more than one way to learn, because while some kids will really enjoy sitting and reading, watching videos and taking an online multiple choice test, others will want to try out a concept through experimentation.  They will want to build something new with their knowledge, or launch further investigation into a concept, or take a field trip and see the learning for themselves.  Learning cannot be reduced to a computer.  This changes the recommendation engine and relies heavily on skilled educators.  This takes into account who a student really is and makes learning recommendations based on that.  The recommendations aren’t relegated to a computer, they can be field trips, videos, apps, projects, activities, experiments, books, and anything else that can be used to learn.  This is utilizing technology for personalization beyond pacing and content exposure to pass the next multiple choice test.  This is empowering teachers to truly shape the learning experience for each student.  This is recognizing that students should have a say in how and what they will learn.  This is why I created the Learning Genome Project.

The Learning Genome Project recognizes that learning is more than just a collection of facts.  It embraces humanity and rejects the idea that humans should be computers.  It will be transformative because it works to make each student the best that they, individually, can be.  It works to strengthen the WHOLE child, not just the fact reservoirs in the brain.  It goes beyond remembering content and challenges students to do something with their knowledge.  I can’t tell you how many students I have met that know their multiplication facts inside and out, but have no idea why finding area requires multiplication.  Knowledge is useful when it can be applied.  The Learning Genome Project urges students to go beyond knowing into the other, rich areas of learning.  Blooms Taxonomy is a useful for thinking through what it means to learn.  Knowledge and understanding are a portion of the learning, but so is the ability to analyze, evaluate, apply and create.  Learning is multifaceted and alive.  It can’t be so neatly all contained in this sort of adaptive learning technology.  Education should utilize technology (I tend to believe this will be the Learning Genome Project) in order to reach the individual.  It must reach outside of itself and meet that student with a name.  It must be able to recognize a student’s need without demanding that the need be met with a predetermined question/answer set.

This post took me some days to think through and write.  It spurred some new thinking for me.  It made me go back through the Learning Genome Project wireframes to dig out any hidden corners that may harbor something that would strip the humanity.  It caused me to think of a new Bloom’s Taxonomy image.  I welcome your thoughts and comments!

Hat tip to @alexbitz for sending me this article!

**If you know an investor who might be interested in the Learning Genome Project, I’d love an introduction!

Live the questions now. (Real Professional Development)

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903; in Letters to a Young Poet

 

I love this.  “Have patience with everything unresolved,” “try to love the questions themselves,” “And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”   We are uncomfortable with living our way into the answer.  Education has morphed over the years into an industry obsessed with the answer.  Especially in the age of high-stakes testing, we want kids to have the correct answers (preferably consistently and now).  As a result, the same is demanded of teachers.  It wasn’t always this way.  Education used to look a whole lot more like life.  Consider the apprenticeship model of education where there was a master teacher (who as it turns out was really just a master learner).  This relationship wasn’t something that happened in a controlled, pre-packaged way…it permeated everything. It was life.

As an educator and administrator, I often fight for the education-as-life model for the classroom.  It makes sense that learning should be more individualized, that it should seek questions and delight in discovery.  It is good that we fight for this.  But what about this same model for professional development?  So often professional development gets boiled down to training educators in a new tool, methodology, curriculum.  It is prepackaged. It is forced.  It assumes answers.

Education is messy.

We are in the business of people, and growth, and life.  There is so much out of our control in education and yet, as a country, we seem to be continually obsessed with the answers- questions be damned.  We have become so obsessed with the answer that we will demand that our teachers get kids to know them on command.  That they will be able to perform on the spot, like a well-trained animal.  The questions are shunned. There isn’t time!  And so, professional development begins to mirror this model.  If we demand answers out of kids, then we must train all of our teachers in exactly the same manner and we can expect that they will have all the same results.

Is anyone else picking up on how ludicrous this all is?  We aren’t dealing with widgets. We are in the business of people, and growth, and life.

We need a new era of professional development.

Any school-wide, everybody-gets-the-same-thing, professional development should be focused on building up community and culture.  When you have a cohesive culture, one focused on bringing life, the rest begins to fall into place.  When you have a strong community the questions have room to be embraced.  In this model, individuality among the staff is appreciated.  The strengths and gifts that each was hired for begin to shine.  Passion is contagious.  It allows for living the questions now.  This is the philosophy at Anastasis Academy.  I can attest to the: “Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even knowing it, live your way to the answer.” Incredible things happen at Anastasis Academy.  Much of what we do can’t just be packaged up and replicated.  We don’t do professional development that is focused on answers.  We live life together.  We build community and culture.  We embrace questions together and then live our way to the answer.  It isn’t always nicely packaged.  It doesn’t have predetermined nice and neat outcomes.  But it works!

What we engage together professionally would not be recognized by most districts as Professional Development.  We get together and watch movies like Buck.  Then after the movie, we go out for a bite to eat and a drink and talk about themes, hopes, dreams, fears.  This movie has nothing and everything to do with education.  We wander the streets of Philly together and let our history obsessed teacher impress us with his passion for what we are seeing.  We go along with him when he says “Wait! Stop right here and close your eyes, can you just imagine how hot this room would have been during the signing in the middle of the summer?”  We watch Saturday Night Live clips together (HVR! HVR!).  Spurred on by our students, we all read the Hunger Games, and then go together to see the midnight showing.  We eat massive amounts of pancakes at Snooze.  We take a cultural tour around Denver and meet religious leaders of religions we know little about.  We stuff ourselves with Five Guys Burgers until we vow never to eat them again.  We shoot skeet and drink whisky.  We attend conferences together.  We meet for yoga in the park.  We paint together. We visit students in the hospital.  We go to a baseball/hockey/basketball game. This is professional development.  I’ve stumbled on a little truth about educators: you can’t get them together over a meal (or anything else) very long before the conversation is dominated by talk of education.  It is our worldview.  Even when we aren’t talking education, we really are.

Without strong school culture and community, there is little to build on that is meaningful.  While we have a lot of fun together, our professional development is more than that.  It is bonding us together. It is giving us common language, metaphors and jokes.  It is living life together and allowing for something meaningful and important to take place.

It is shared humanity. 

This is the kind of professional development that is worth doing with every teacher. It builds a school infrastructure in a way that nothing else can.  It gives us permission to live in the questions, to learn from each other, and to say hard things when they need to be said.

When you walk through the hallways of Anastasis Academy, you will see a camaraderie among our staff that I haven’t seen in any other place.  Our students pick up on this.  They see that we genuinely appreciate each other, that we laugh and learn from each other.  The impact is big.

People will often say, “but how do you keep your teachers at the cutting edge (of the newest tools, tech, curriculum)?!”  Well, we don’t.  We leave that up to them.  When you give educators some autonomy in their own learning, they do it more authentically.  So, although we are a 1 to 1 iPad school, we have never had 1:1 iPad training professional development day/year.  Why?  As I said, our staff shares with each other and is comfortable in asking the questions and exploring together.  Sometimes during our shared Wednesday morning time we will have a “smack down” session where each shares something that they are geeking about at the moment.  When we learn a new method of engaging information, we share it with each other.  When we read a really great book, we recommend it to the rest of the group.  We encourage our teachers to be learners because this is the culture that has been built.  We ask a LOT of questions.  Sometimes we don’t get to an answer…yet.

We hired teachers with specialized skills and areas of real passion.  When we set out to hire a staff, we wanted to build a ball team.  It does us no good if we take our well-rounded, masterful ball team and force them to all learn the exact same thing, in the same way, at the same time.  We want our ball team to have commonality (culture), but we want them to be the BEST at what they are the best at.  We want them to live in their own areas of passion.  It contributes greatly to Team Anastasis!  Clones do us no good in a school full of unique individuals we call students.

Professional development should be in the business of living the questions now, perhaps then we can start living our way to the answers that matter.

Embodied learning and things that don’t have names

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about education.  How we prove that learning has taken place.  Inevitably we talk about standards, measures, awards, grades, success.  Anastasis has given me the freedom to completely redefine education.  There are no limits, except of my own making.  I get to decide how to talk about education.  This would be easy if I was doing all of this in a vacuum, but I’m not.  There are stakeholders who care about how I talk about education.  Parents, teachers, students, higher education.

The problem, I’m discovering, is that when we talk about education, we talk about it too narrowly.  It is possible to be very committed, data driven, tech savvy, “21st century,” and yet be working against the kind of learning that is transformative.  We can have all the right tools, the measures, the awards and test score evidence and still not really see.  We can miss the thing we care most about, because we are so focused on trying to define it.

I’ve been learning about embodied energy, this is the sum of all energy required to produce goods or services.  It is the energy that can’t be seen because it isn’t obvious.  The measures, the awards and test score evidence…they aren’t really the learning.  They are poor representations of learning.  I’m more interested in the embodied learning.  I want to know about all of the little moments, the prior learning, the assumptions that led up to the light bulb moment for a student.

Because novels are more than just words.

Songs are more than just notes

Paintings are more than just color.

When you separate out the words, notes or colors they don’t do anything.  They cease to tell a story. They cease to move us.  It is when the words come together, in very specific orders, that a story is told.  When the notes are intentionally strung together that we get music that resonates with us.  When the colors dance on a canvas that we are moved to emotion.

So, when we talk about education and we look at data points and test scores and numbers, we lose something. The number can’t tell a story.  It can’t show the incredible little moments that led up to learning.  Because there IS embodied learning.  The part that really matters.  The embodied story that tells us that learning was more than just the shallow memorization of surface facts.  That there was a journey that led to the light bulb moment.  The tricky part comes in the stakeholders.  They want the learning to be defined.  But a lot of that embodied learning doesn’t have a name.  It can’t be measured in any scientific, rational, conventional way.

We end up talking about education as if it can fit inside a 20 second sound bite.  We boil it all down to one sheet of paper that tells kids if they measure up or not.  When we reduce everything down to the soundbite, we strip away something vital to who students really are, the journey and learning that takes place.  Students can become completely enslaved to expectations, good grades and accolades and lose their true selves in the process.  Lose the curiosity and wonder of learning.  This isn’t what the world needs.  The world needs people who are fully alive.  Who have passion.  It’s one thing to memorize and have the right answer (and right number on the report card), it is another to be so passionately engaged with learning that curiosities lead you to new learning.

Our job as educators is more than just standards we teach.  We are in the business of helping students know they are more than just a number.  More than just data points.  They are the story, the song, the art that moves and matters.  They are the embodied learning.

Our challenge is to help stakeholders care more about the embodied learning, the things that don’t have names.  The journey that collectively leads to things that matter.  Our challenge is to care most about students that are fully alive in their learning.

It is up to us to make the things that matter, the most important.

 

(Along this line of thinking, I’m attempting a redesign of the “report card” we need a way to better capture the things that can’t be named.)

Everything Matters

I’m recognizing, this year more than ever, that everything matters in a school environment.  Everything.  When we go about “fixing” education, we have to keep this in mind.  As we dreamed up the Anastasis model, we worked from a “break everything and start over” mindset.  We wanted to step outside of all assumptions of what education is, what learning looks like and how it must be done, and start from a clean slate.  I recognize that putting aside ALL assumptions is not always possible because we aren’t able to fully even identify our assumptions sometimes.  The real goal here was to be intentional, every day, about what we do.

This morning, as I was getting dressed, I was reminded again about just how much everything matters.  The way that I dress each day may seem superficial and unimportant to the education conversation.  In my little corner of the world it matters.  In my second year of teaching I started having parents stop by my classroom and tell me that they felt like they knew me because every day their kids came home and mentioned what I was wearing.  I had no idea that my students were even paying attention.  They rarely mentioned anything to me.  I worked in an environment that had a loose dress code that had to be followed.  Essentially it was: black pants and a dressy shirt, long skirt, or dress.  I didn’t always feel comfortable in my dress code garb, to add my own style to the dress code, I went all out in my shoes.  I love shoes and color. When they are paired together I am in.

Now that I get to determine the dress code, I can really let my style shine.  I work to keep it dressy, but in my own way.  Why does this matter?  Kids are still watching and commenting on what I wear.  The older girls will especially comment on each facet of my outfit.  They are paying attention.  What can I teach through my personal style?  I can teach that NO one can define who you are except you.  I can teach that clothes can act as an extension or reflection of who you are, but they aren’t who you are.  I can help girls see that it is okay to subscribe to multiple styles…that you don’t have to wear what your friends wear to be their friend.  In my closet you will find a lot of preppy, some hipster flare, some New York chic, some beach bum sprinkled with a little of everything in between.  I like to mix it up and pair the unexpected. At the end of the day, I want what I wear to teach something every day.  I want it to say something about the superficial boxes that we put people in. I want to be able to have the conversation with girls about dressing appropriately for age and body type in a way that is respectful to them and others.  I want these kids to realize that it is okay to be who they were created to be.  I want them to be fully alive because they aren’t being limited by what someone else tells them they have to be.

I want to be intentional because it matters.  Kids are picking up on what is said and also what isn’t.

This year our student body grew.  It grew so much that we needed to find a new building.  This was a hard transition because we went from really large, open rooms to more traditional classrooms.  The kids picked up that something felt different this year.  They weren’t able to see the other classes work throughout the day, it wasn’t as easy to flow from one class to another and work with different age students.  When we asked the kids what felt different, they couldn’t always put their finger on it. Something felt different.  Environment matters.  It matters for kids and teachers.  While our teachers liked having their own space again (everything last year was temporary and had to be moved out of the classroom each week), there is something missing.  The natural conversations that happen throughout the day with other teachers when you share space, the camaraderie you feel with other staff members changes because you don’t see them quite so often.  The ability to learn from each other all the time because you share space.  It reminded me of where most of you are.  In very traditional spaces trying to do something different.

We had to “break” the classrooms we are in this year and start over.  This isn’t nearly as easy to do as it was last year!   This year that breaking means letting kids own the classroom.  It means letting them bring in their own chairs and bean bags. It means building tree houses in the classroom that can be used as learning space.  It means making the giant windows in the classrooms into writing space using dry erase markers.  It means painting murals of our learning about Rwanda on the walls.  It means being intentional about using shared space for “all-in” time where multiple classes gather and work together.  It isn’t our ideal, but it is intentionally student space.

Environment matters.  Kids pick up on these subtleties.  Is the space mine, or yours?

 

Last Friday we had an inservice day for our teaching staff.  We take a little bit different approach to our professional development.  We could bring in educational consultants, speakers, etc to hold a workshop day with us where we sit and listen to an “expert” tell us what we could be doing better.  Instead, we took our teachers on a cultural journey around Denver.  This is the same field trip that Jr. High students took a few weeks back.  We take field trips with students every week because we believe that there is something to learn from everyone.  We believe that learning can (and should) take place outside of a classroom just as often as it does inside a classroom.  So, we loaded up a van with all of us, made a quick stop off at Starbucks for some fuel and headed off to learn.  Anastasis is a Christian school with Christian staff members.  On our journey around Denver we stopped at a Mosque, a Hindu Temple and a Baha’i center.  Our goal: to see the world through different eyes.   To ask questions.  To learn something new together.  This was an incredible experience.  I would venture to say that I learned more on Friday about the teaching/learning process (from non-educators) than I have at any other professional development day I’ve had.  We stepped into other cultures and let ourselves be curious.  We were comfortably uncomfortable in new situations where what we knew came from a paragraph in a textbook we read in high school.  We learned. It was beautiful!  We had deep conversations, asked questions and reflected together.  At lunch, the Anastasis staff had the opportunity to reflect and discuss what we had heard.

It may not sound like much, but these shared experiences, these moments of camaraderie matter.  The staff at Anastasis comes from all backgrounds and life experiences.  We are very different and yet we truly enjoy each other’s company.  We spend time together outside of school.  We run together, see movies together, laugh together, have dinner.  A staff that is connected in this way operates better.  We values each other’s opinions.  We look for opportunities to learn from each other.  We work together.  Students pick up on this camaraderie.  They see what healthy relationships and friendships look like.  They see that you don’t have to be the same age, gender, personality to get along and enjoy others.

As it turns out everything matters.  Even the seemingly insignificant pieces of your day make an impact on the way that learning happens.  I often get asked how a teacher in a traditional setting can “break everything and start over.”  Be intentional.  Pay attention to the insignificant. Think about how environment, dress, body language, friendships are teaching students something.  Start there.  Break those.  Those small nuances teach something whether you want them to or not.  It can teach kids that they have to fit in, that there is something wrong with them if they don’t fit, that the classroom doesn’t belong to them, that the adults in their lives don’t really believe what they say about relationship.  Or, you can decide that it does matter and in doing so help them begin to see that they matter.  That they are wonderfully unique.  That the learning space belongs to them.  That they can be fully alive.

Everything matters.