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.
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.
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!