Curriculum

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall…

There is this story, attributed to JFK’s grandfather, that as a boy, he and his friends would walk along a stone wall in Ireland on their way home from school and, as kids do, they dared him to climb over the wall. The wall was tall, formidable, and scary. He decided that the only way he could guarantee completing this challenge was to throw his hat over the wall so that he would have no choice but to go after it. The hat was part of his school uniform, and he couldn’t go home without it.

We are in a throw your hat over the wall moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all capable of massive change in the short term. Nearly overnight, we went from our usual way of life, to teaching and learning online, working from home, social distancing, wearing masks in public, grocery shopping differently, and adapting to a new way of life. Eight weeks into this pandemic and we see that we are capable of really significant pivots.

So often in education, I hear how resistant some educators are to change. If this moment is teaching us anything, it’s that we are capable of throwing our hat over the wall. Teachers all over the world have done this. How can we capitalize on this moment? How can we define a new normal with new priorities? How can we involve students in the re-imagination?

What we choose to do next matters, we can double down on our efforts to keep the broken status quo, or we can use the opportunity to re-imagine our system.

Who and what will we choose to support? Kids, families, and teachers? Or curriculum companies, tests, and bureaucracies?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

This is an opportunity to engage in design thinking that will forever transform our schools. Where does this design thinking begin? With empathy. With what is actually sacred: the students.

This moment in time has reminded me how essential this step is (unfortunately, it’s one we regularly leapfrog in education). Who are our students as individuals? Who are their families?

When we refocus our organizing principals around the actual students in our care, when we begin from a place of empathy we can anticipate meaningful changes in our education system. Post pandemic I hope that education doesn’t look the same. I hope that we have taken a step back and hung question marks on the things we take for granted.

What might starting with the student (empathy) look like?

*Class sizes will be smaller. Part of this will be out of health necessity, but I hope the bigger driver of this decision is that we’ve considered the individual student first. With small class sizes, we can offer dynamic, student-focused learning that is tailored to the learner rather than the static curriculum currently being spoon-fed.

*Curriculum will be dynamic and living. We’ll focus less on what content has been covered and focus more on critical thinking, problem solving, discernment, research, and creative expression. Curriculum will meet students where they are rather than demand everyone be in the same place.

*We’ll step away from siloed subjects and engage students in inquiry. We’ll consider that students live in a world that’s subjectless and ask that learning be immersive. We’ll recognize that financial literacy, digital literacy, and statistical literacy are vital.

*We’ll remember that learning is so much bigger and more beautiful than the meaningless data battles we’ve insisted on in the past. What was one of the first things to go amid pandemic? Standardized testing. Students will be better off as a result. Learning isn’t about the data we collect, or how much content was memorized. Learning is immersive and relational. Assessment practices will be for the student. We’ll return to the Greek root of the word assessment (asidere) to sit beside. Assessment will be used to guide learning and as a way for students to self reflect.

*I’ve seen many politicians, parents, and educators voice concerns about students being behind in learning as a result of the pandemic. Should they repeat the grade level? What will we do to catch them up? The pandemic is shining a light on a problem that’s been true the whole time. Students have ALWAYS developed at different rates and in their own time. Nothing about this moment is actually unusual. What is different is that we have a spotlight on the inherent flaws in our systemized one-size-fits-all approach to education that promotes kids to the next level because of their age. What a wonderful opportunity to completely lose grade levels as a way of advancement and instead, let every student advance as they are developmentally ready. How do we organize classrooms? Based on social/emotional maturation. Who is their peer group? Who can they be vulnerable in learning with?

* We are being reminded that social-emotional literacy isn’t something to tack on to school policies or a curriculum, rather it’s the life force within the system. After physical needs are met, emotional needs are very next in the pyramid that makes it possible to learn. When students come back to the classroom, we will be met with complex emotions and unique forms of trauma. We’ll find ourselves in charge of these wonderful, fearful, joyful, exuberant, grief-stricken, complicated, anxious, lovely, overwhelmed children. This has always been the case but, I suspect as we return to school, we are going to be met with the complexity that all of these emotions can exist simultaneously. We’ll be more acutely aware of them. Kids and families will be looking to educators for help, stability, and understanding. How will we meet them? How will we commit to navigating this together? We need to know our students (empathy) and their families well so that we can meet their unique needs. Educators know it’s never been about just teaching kids. As educators we are connected to every single part of society. How families eat, work, access heath care, are supported in mental health, the jobs they hold. All of humanity intersects in the classroom and it impacts how we do what we do in the classroom. This pandemic has given us more awareness of this reality than ever before as educators scramble to fill the gaps that society generally overlooks because “someone” is taking care of it. The way that this crisis impacts society is going to impact our classrooms and the learning available on any given day as we navigate base physical and emotional needs that haven’t been met. The only reasonable response is to begin with empathy. We will need to be stronger advocates than ever before and we’ll have to consider the whole child in every decision made.

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall. Here’s to remembering who is sacred in education and designing around them.

Summer Dreams: A glimpse into inquiry-based learning

Every summer has the same rhythm for me. Most days consist of reading (also known as feeding my soul) and planning for the upcoming school year. Though I truly enjoy every season in Colorado, the rhythm of summer is my favorite. It gives me time to dream and to prepare for the upcoming year. Summer for me is an indicator of space. Space to take deep breaths, to learn from others, and to iterate and dream.

Anastasis is a school without curriculum; by that, I mean that we don’t purchase a curriculum from a big publishing company. I haven’t found a curriculum that knows our students (with names) the way that my teachers know our students (with names). They don’t know our students the way I know our students. Summer is the time that I build a framework for Anastasis teachers. An inquiry guide. Inquiry is the philosophy that drives learning at Anastasis. I love inquiry because it is a natural differentiator. Within an inquiry philosophy, students meet the learning where they are. Inquiry is a transformational, life-changing framework. It’s one that empowers kids.

12 years ago (with a lot of help from my PLN, blogger alliance friends) I learned about, and fell in love with, the International Baccalaureates PYP Framework. Through blogs, Twitter conversations, and the Reform Symposium Conference, I got a behind the scenes look at inquiry within the PYP happening in countries and classrooms around the world. There are six themes within the framework: Who We Are, Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, and Sharing the Planet. I have yet to find any learning under the sun that doesn’t fit into one of these six categories. We use this framework at Anastasis as our launching point. In the summer, I choose a lens for our Primary, Intermediate, and Jr. High students to explore each inquiry Framework.

This is the time when I get to dream. My dreaming takes shape as a lens, a question, several lines of inquiry, and some provocations that teachers and students might dig into. These dreams and frameworks turn into absolute masterpieces when my teachers and students get ahold of them. Each of us comes with our own history, our own worldview, our own experiences, our own connections, each of us knows our students (with names). And this makes the “curriculum” richer. The true beauty of inquiry is the way that it grows and meets everyone who interacts with it.

As I dreamed up the Where We Are in Place and Time block, I came with my own background and ideas. When my teachers and students got ahold of it? MAGIC!

Here are the lenses I offered:

Primary: Children in the past live differently than we do today. (Within this I shared some lines of inquiry including: how has school changed over time, what kinds of games did your parents play as kids, how has transportation changed over time (how did this impact exploration and migration), how has food and access to food and food technology changed over time, what has been the impact of invention over time, how has technology changed over time, what is a timeline, how did migration and exploration change how children in the past lived, and how has literature and books children read change over time?)

Intermediate: People migrate with different reasons and with wide-ranging effects. (Within this, some of the lines of inquiry included: what are the reasons people migrate, what is the emotional impact of migration, what are the effects of emigration and immigration, what is manifest destiny, what is the Oregon Trail, what human circumstances and challenges lead to migration, what is the history of migration, how has transportation throughout time impacted migration, what is the cultural impact of migration, what is the governments role in migration?)

Jr. High: Migration happens for a variety of reasons. (The lines of inquiry included: what is the history of migration, what are the reasons for migration, what is the impact of migration-to the areas being left and the areas where relocation takes place, what are the hardships and successes of migration, how did transportation impact migration, how does perspective impact migration, what is the cultural impact of migration, what is the government’s role in migration, what is the emotional impact of migration, what are the effects of emigration and immigration?)

Watching this inquiry block unfold in real time as teachers and students engage it, I’m again reminded of the beauty of inquiry.

Anastasis Academy inquiry immigration

Our Primary students just got to experience an immigration day. After reading, “Ellis Island-a History in Many Voices” by Louise Peacock and exploring immigration through books, videos, and discussions, students experienced their own Immigration Day. Our incredible primary teachers had students dress as immigrants coming to America for the first time. Each received a country of origin and mini backstory. Each created and packed a suitcase filled with the items they would choose to bring with them on a long journey. Each item lovingly considered and included in the small case they were allowed to bring aboard the “ship.” Students were divided into classes on the ship. First class got the best seats, on top of the table, second and third class on the deck below, under the table. Each student received a passport and papers they would need to keep with them. Students had five different stops when they arrived to “Ellis Island:” Medical, Information, Baggage, Passport, and Interview. They were examined by a nurse and doctor, eyes, ears, throat, and skin checked. At the information room, students had to fill out a form which included information from their passports and questions regarding their life in America. Students were interviewed by officials, asked questions about their plans and intent in America. How would they earn money? Where did they plan to live? At each room, if our student immigrants were approved, they would receive a stamp in their passport and sent to the next room. Each of the five items that the students packed in their suitcase was closely inspected with questions about why they chose those items. Students watched, Coming to America by Neil Diamond. Pictures were taken for passports and a new identity, and nationality were granted. Each student created a reflective journal about their journey to America with illustrations.

Inquiry is immersive. Students get to experience their learning.

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Our Intermediate and Jr. High students have had the opportunity to experience their learning during this block in different ways. Our intermediate students visited 4 Mile Historic Park where they stepped into the past and saw the world through their ancestor’s eyes. One of our Anastasis teachers immigrated to America from South Africa. She shared her long immigration journey with students including the absolute joy at being declared a US citizen. Next, our students heard from a parent who is considered an illegal immigrant, though he has lived in the United States since he was two years old. He was able to share his experiences with the immigration process in America. Colorado refugee students joined our students for an afternoon of learning, soccer, dancing, and lunch. Anastasis students had the opportunity to hear their stories of fleeing a country and finding refuge in the US, as well as connect with them through play. This week our Jr. High students tutored refugee students in English and Math at their home school. In the coming weeks, these students will visit the Mango House (a non-profit that provides services to refugees) and attend a citizenship ceremony.

Inquiry is so much bigger than a curriculum guide. It’s about connecting students with stories and growing their awareness. It’s about seeing people. Inquiry is immersive learning. This is bigger than a worksheet or a research paper. This learning is absolutely transformational.

Take a look at some of our student reflections after the immigration stories:

We often don’t understand the circumstances in our world until we experience them. As we listened to the two people talk today, I realized how much sympathy we need for people that are immigrating to our country. As Miguel said, “The sun rises for everyone.” It really struck me how much joy we can find if we try to. We are often so doted on and spoiled that we expect the joy to come to us. Though sometimes we need to go out and change our perspective. My biggest shock today was how happy these two people were despite their trials. I hope I can apply their outlook on life in my own journey. -Anastasis Student
Everyone wants to see the sun but the sun rises for everyone, you just have to look for it. When people see an immigrant, they think “criminal, illegal, job stealer”, they don’t think, “person, mother, father, sister, brother.” People don’t like people who are different from them, but if everyone were the same, we would end up with a society like The Giver. You cannot judge a book by a cover; you cannot judge an immigrant without knowing their story. – Anastasis Student
I have traveled the lands and witnessed the world unfold. I’ve seen God, in seminaries and in the ground we stand on. I’ve been on an odyssey, a grand tour of our world, yet I see the light covered by darkness. I watch as two sides fight, spewing lies and frustration, placing more cement over the towering wall, looking down at us. Both sides making one massive monster, in the shape of a barrier. Now the wall has become a lens, now we face the beast. -Anastasis Student
How can you say it? How can you think it? How can you be against it without knowing it? “You have to go through hell to get here.” Immigrants are people who go through hell. The hell they face isn’t just because of the long journey. It is because of the rejection, the unfairness, and so much more that I would not be able to imagine. But, “the sun rises for everyone” (Miguel). Life will get better. With a positive attitude, a goal, and faith, the sun will rise. -Anastasis Student
It was amazing to hear the stories of Mrs. Fun and Miguel. They both have amazing stories and some things that would be very frustrating. It is not so easy to migrate like how some people say. “You have to go to hell to get to America.” Sometimes you just have to walk in their shoes and see what people have to go through to get here. It was good to see the long hard journey to become a legal citizen and the other side of seeing the troubles of trying to help your family while also worrying about becoming a legal citizen. People just have to see what people have to go through to come to this amazing country. It is easy to just say that people should come here the legal way, but we don’t realize the long, hard, expensive journey that it actually is. -Anastasis Academy
God always has the right path for you. You have to be passionate even if you think you were left behind because God has a wonderful plan for you that will come in due time. “The sun rises for everyone.” (Miguel).  It took Mrs. Van De Vyver 15 years to become a U.S citizen, and Miguel is still trying to become a citizen after 25 years. Today I was inspired to always keep a good attitude and keep a smile on my face. -Anastasis Student
There’s a long road ahead for the destination we sit comfortably in. Year after years and the road continues. 20-year journey and still the road goes on. “The sun rises for everyone” ( Miguel). Soon you will be able to travel with joy and comfort. Though one person can succeed, there are many more still walking on something they wish to be an odyssey. The dreams sit sweetly in their minds with a hint of opportunity. Let your mind soak in this perspective and live with a new lens. -Anastasis Student
Without the mountain, there is no summit. I sit on a hill watching the sunset over the horizon. If only the sun could last forever, I thought. But of course the light doesn’t last, but neither does the dark. Instead a perfect balance is created. This is the balance that holds the knowledge of the world. Without this balance, the world is broken, and the cycle of the earth will cease causing life its self to fall out of our grasp like sand. But here and now is the present and so here I will dwell shouting praise to God atop the mountain because God is the father of life. And life is in the present. This is why darkness was created.  -Anastasis Student
You guys!!! These are 11-13-year-olds reflecting on a shared experience of exploration, story, and seeing people. Show me what textbook can produce this kind of empathy, this level of understanding.
I thought about waiting to post this until after the final experiences with the Mango House and the citizenship ceremony, but honestly, I was too eager to share this hope.
This process of inquiry isn’t always neat and tidy. As principal dreaming in the summer, I often don’t know exactly what it will look like. It’s the result of passionate teachers, our amazing field trip coordinator, and students who keep pushing into learning they are immersed in.
Inquiry is immersive. It’s about story. It’s about connection. It’s about awareness. Inquiry is where the real learning is.

Unintended consequences of a system

Schools are places where all of humanity collides. When students enter school, they come just as they are. For educators, the human condition is apparent. The brokenness is apparent. Students come to school with all of their differences be they political, social economic, racial, academic, or theological. They come with all their fears, insecurities, doubts, anxieties, trauma, shame, guilt, hopes, dreams, passions, interests, excitement, and a desperation to be loved.

When students enter our classroom, they come in search of sanctuary. A place where they can be safe and feel included. To ignore this is to ignore that as educators we are in the very business of humanity and community.

Schools, and indeed our classrooms, are the very place that our society is formed. We must place the focus on the humanity in our classrooms. On who they are. On the stories that enter our space each day. To place the focus on anything other than the students is to erode their sense of self, place, and belonging. When we don’t take the time to get to know the children and stories in our classrooms, when the focus is on knowledge acquisition, on curriculum, on Pinterest worthy classrooms, on tests, on being a “blue” school, we ignore this humanity.

In the wake of the shooting in Florida, I again feel stripped bare. I again wonder when we will look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the right questions, respond in the right ways. Look at the unintended consequences of our current narrative and systems. I wonder when we will be able to change.

I’m a strong believer that everything matters. Our language, the structures we put in place, the way we speak about our values. It all matters. Students pick up on the undertones, those things we aren’t even naming aloud. Kids have an internal BS meter that goes off when our words don’t match the systems. When our words don’t match our actions. They can spot a disingenuous spirit a mile away.

I’ve read the articles and Twitter posts placing blame on the erosion of values in our country. Sometimes they point to the removal of prayer from schools. Other times the finger gets pointed at violent video games and movies. Sometimes it’s the song writers and artists that get the blame.  There is talk about this being a cultural problem.

I agree. It is a problem with our culture, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s not the lack of prayer, or video games, or musicians, or movies. It’s because we continually send the message as a society that you don’t matter. That you’re not worthy. We rarely say it aloud in this way. In our words, in our finger pointing, in our actions, in our systems this is the message that gets sent. You don’t matter.

Let’s explore some unintended messages being sent in our current system:

Subjects/tests/grades: Unintentionally share the message that only some skills are worthwhile and that if you don’t have them, there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are only worthwhile if your passions and skills match up to those we’ve decided are worthwhile.

Grades: Unintentionally send the message that your worth comes from a number. You are worthy if, and when, you perform.

Homework: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to be a learner. We have to tell you what to do and how to spend your free time. What you value isn’t as important as what we value. Downtime is not important. Rest is not important. Boredom is not important.

Behavior charts: Unintentionally sends the message that the only way to get you to comply is through public shaming. You can’t make good choices on your own.

Standards: Unintentionally sends the message that we get to determine what is important to learn. If we haven’t named it as a standard, it’s not as important or valuable.

Curriculum: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t think or explore on your own because you aren’t capable without a map where we tell you where to go and how to get there. You are a computer to be programmed.

Assigned seats: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to choose where to sit. We don’t care to get to know you, so by making you sit in the same place, we can look at the chart to know your name.

Grade Levels: Unintentionally sends the message that your age is the most important consideration when deciding who you should spend time with.

Tests and Grades: Unintentionally sends the message that competition is better than collaboration. Being the best is what matters.

Classroom space: Unintentionally sends the message that nothing is alive. That we don’t need a connection to life, or growth, or fresh air. Classrooms are enlarged cubicles. You’re learning so that you can trade one cubical, for a smaller cubical when you’ve been “trained” to our approval. This is what your life is destined to, get used to it now.

Gun laws (protection of the second amendment and all firearms): Unintentionally sends the message that we value the gun more than we value you and your safety. A gun is more worthy of our protection and activism than you are.

Armed teachers: Amplifies the message that you are not safe at school. School is not a place of sanctuary.

Increased core class time: Unintentionally sends the message that movement isn’t important, free time isn’t important, music isn’t important, art isn’t important. There is no value outside of the narrow band of academics we say have value.

We’ve created a morally corrupt society because we’ve unintentionally created a model that systemically tells kids that they don’t matter.  We look only for outward measures of success. We fail to help kids look at how to care for their inner lives. We’ve taken away the dignity of the child with so many of the systems we’ve put in place in schools.

Until we name the brokenness of the system out loud, it can’t change. Until we confess to each other, we remain unchanged and the world remains unchanged. By naming it out loud, and looking at it together, we begin to take away its power to do harm. To hide, deny, or pretend that it doesn’t exist is to allow the hurt and stripping of humanity to fester and grow. We bond over our shared brokenness. We invite change when we name the brokenness together, out loud.

We need to tell the truth. Humanity collides in all of its brokenness and beauty in our classrooms. We’re all on a journey. We’re in this together. We all give and we all receive. We all have a place. The world is interconnected, and we are connected. We belong to each other.

The unintended and underlying messages we send with our systems and policies, and language matter. They ultimately shape the ways we think about ourselves and others.

 

 

 

Crafting an Inquiry Block and Helping Others “See”

The thing about inquiry…once it has you in it’s grasp, there will be no escaping it. It’s magic. You begin to realize that everything is connected and you’ll want to know more about all of it, and also change the world, because you’ll see things that you haven’t before.

It will be gloriously frustrating (time is still finite) and fun (because learning is breathtaking and wonderful!).

Inquiry is the way to indulge in all of the beauty and wonder in the world.

It unleashes the possible.

You’ll find yourself frustrated that you wasted so many minutes on “learning” that was less. That you spent so much time calling memorization and regurgitation learning. That you believed that learning happened as a result of what a teacher, or curriculum, or test told you was important. That as soon as the homework/project/test was over, that learning was over.

Inquiry is bigger.

Wider.

With inquiry we aren’t just inviting collaboration between disciplines, but also exploring the space between and beyond the disciplines as well.  Inquiry ignites interest and passion.

“People who are curious inquirers have a learning advantage, they will always be able to teach themselves the things they need to know, long after their formal education ends.” (Whiplash, Jeff Howe and Joi Ito)

Every summer I design the framework for our inquiry blocks. I begin with the IB’s PYP questions (because they are brilliant and I have yet to find a topic that doesn’t fall within one of the six questions). With those in mind, I choose books to read, videos to watch, and generally just approach life with curiosity. The only rule: the books/videos/content has to be a little random. In other words, I choose things that I don’t know a lot about, without an agenda about why I chose them, and they can’t have too similar of a theme. For example, this summer I read “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design” by Frank Wilczek, “Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman, “Get Backed” by Baehr|Loomis, “Youthnation” by Matt Britton, “Innovation is a State of Mind” by Jame O’ Loghlin, “Intention” by Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder, “The Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros, “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker, “Ask the Dust” by John Fante, “What is the Bible” by Rob Bell, and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George, “Cooking for Picasso” by Camille Aubray. I also watch copious amounts of TED talk videos and spend an enormous amount of time following random web link bunny trails. Totally random. But when you read things with the 6 inquiry questions in mind, suddenly everything starts to connect and you see things you may not have before. As I read I take a MILLION notes…because I love notebooks and remember things when I write them down. Then when it comes time to actually design the inquiry block, I have this incredible common place book to pull from. Seriously, this is my most happy place of happy places!

Degas said: “Art is not what you see, it is what you help others see.”

I feel like this is the way I spend my summers, immersed in art that helps me see.

This is what I hope for our inquiry blocks, that it would help our students see. To make beautiful connections, and marvel in the wonder of learning.

We’re just getting started into one of my favorite inquiry blocks every year, “How We Express Ourselves.” This year our lens is: There are many different ways to tell a story (primary); Our imagination allows us to express ourselves creatively (Intermediate); Through the arts, people use different forms of expression to convey their uniqueness as humans (Jr. High)

When I read the books above every one of them seemed to seep into this inquiry block. They all had insight and new ways of “seeing.”

As questions come to me, I jot them down. These become our lines of inquiry.

  • Storytelling happens through different mediums including visual arts, words, poems, music, dance, drama, metaphor, photography, icons, math, science.
  • We express our own identity through the medium we choose to tell our stories through.
  • Cultures throughout time have expressed themselves through story.
  • Different types of literature tell different kinds of stories.
  • How are stories told? What is the structure of stories?
  • How do fossils tell a story of the past?
  • Why is sequence an important component of story?
  • What tools do historians use to help them tell a story?
  • How do we distinguish fact from fiction?
  • What are sources of inspiration?
  • What role does perspective play in expression?
  • How can limitations and constraints make us more creative?
  • Are there mathematical formulas that are “beautiful” to the human eye?
  • How do animals and humans receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond in different ways?
  • How do we visualize sound? What is cymatics?
  • How do vibrating materials make sound?
  • Observe and create a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and demonstrate how waves cause objects to move.
  • Perspective and where we find beauty (including through math and science).
  • What cultural artifacts tell us about people who lived in a place and time.
  • In war, what is the significance of destroying art and culture?

You can see how one line of thought leads me down some bunny trails! Look at how many standards this block hits across ALL disciplines. If you, or a student, is particularly passionate about one of those lines of inquiry, it probably gives rise to all sorts of new questions…which is precisely how it works in the classroom.

When I work on the framework of an inquiry block, I’m really just setting the stage where our collective genius can collide over common problems. This is true of teachers and students at Anastasis. We all come with different backgrounds, and histories, and inspirations. The above list represents the connections I made BECAUSE of the different provocations and background that I have to draw on. But we all come with that, both teachers and students.

What results is beautiful and unique to this place and time with these people. We could look at these very same lines of inquiry every year until the end of time and gain new insight and make new connections every time as our experiences evolve and our community changes.

Of course, to help give some guidance, I offer provocations to my staff that will give us some common language and make sense of some of my more *seemingly* random connections.

The provocations for the How We Express Ourselves inquiry block above:

TED Talk: The Beautiful Dilemma of Our Separateness- Sally Taylor talks about finding her place in art.

CONSENSES– The most brilliant game of artistic telephone where each artist expresses the previous artist’s expression in their own favorite medium.

TED Talk: Embrace the Shake- Phil Hansen finds beauty in the limitations and constraints.

TED Talk: Making Sound Visible Through Cymatics– The science and art of cymatics, a process of making sound waves visible.

 

Can you see the depth of learning made possible? Rather than limiting learning with a specified goal, we’ve given students depth. We’ve shown them the beauty in learning.

da Vinci said it best, “Learn how to see, realize that everything connects to everything else.”

On being more particular and purposeful

Too often I hear educators and education companies talking in terms of making whatever they are doing/selling “21st Century Relevant.” I see things on Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Twitter (and my inbox happens to be full of) promises to freshen up the classroom, make things more dynamic with this new thing…usually technology or trend related. And then that thing gets shared by people. It spreads like wildfire. Everyone wants to be the first that discovered it and put it into their classroom (hello fidget spinner multiplication madness). It’s learning as a commodity.

But there is no intentionality there. No sense of: “we chose this direction, this particular thing that has meaning.” No sense of: “We got rid of that thing because it lacked meaning and chose this instead.”

Choosing to honor the identity of every student (the Student-with-a-Name) is to bring intentionality to every decision made. It means that you hold everything up to the light and ensure that it is meaningful and important to add to what you are doing in the classroom. It also means that, if it doesn’t do what it should, you aren’t so married to the idea that you can’t scrap it.

Honoring identity means that you are flexible and agile…with a purpose. It isn’t about following the next trend and tricking kids into learning. We must be more particular and purposeful about what we do in our schools. Kids can feel when things lack authenticity. When they are meant to trick them into learning. It cheapens the learning by making it a commodity.

What does authentic, purposeful learning look like? I’ve found that it’s more about questions than answers. More about journey than destination. I’ve found that it happens most beautifully when it is in concert rather than siloed into subjects. The truth is, learning in isolation is impoverished. When you learn in isolation it does a disservice to every other discipline because the truth is, all disciplines dance together. The beauty and the richness of learning is so much greater when disciplines are experienced together in harmony.

When you start understanding learning as bigger than the trend, bigger than memorizing facts, bigger than getting into the right high school or college, bigger than education debates, it can feel like the rugs been pulled out from beneath you. How long have we been sold that the purpose of school is to get us to the next step… high school… college… a job that will pay our bills.

When you see that learning is bigger, you start to wonder why no one ever shared how big and beautiful it really is. You can feel betrayed (I spent how many years and how much money on this inauthentic version?!). But once you see the beauty of learning in harmony, there is no going back. It’s like going from black and white to color. From a few disparate notes to a symphony, from two dimensions to unlimited dimensions. When you see learning as bigger everything starts to connect and you see beauty. Suddenly what has been sold as education feels so cheap, and incomplete, and wrong. The fidget spinner math worksheet feels like a trick.

Be courageous in doing the right thing for kids even when it isn’t the popular thing. The normal thing. The understood by masses thing.

 

 

 

 

Learning Alive: Trusting Students to be Learners

As educators, we are profoundly connected to the stories of our students. We know which students had breakfast, who fought with their brother on the way in, who feels anxious in social settings, who is celebrating a big flag football win, who is mourning the anniversary of losing a parent, who believes they are stupid, we know the one that feels isolated in their classroom. We know that every child comes with a unique story, a history that none other shares. It is our business to honor the humanity in our classrooms. It is our sacred duty to honor the identity of each student in our care.

Boxed curriculum falls short of honoring the identity of your students. It wasn’t created with them in mind. It was created for a number. It was created for an outcome. Created for an average.

This isn’t to say that curriculum companies aren’t trying. They work to offer differentiation strategies, they work to “personalize” pacing. But in the end, one problem remains: they don’t know the Students-with-Names in your classroom. They don’t know the stories that walk into your classroom each morning. Can’t possibly know the dynamics of your classrooms when all those unique stories collide and create a community of learners. I’ve been involved in education since 2003, and I’ve never had a duplicate story. Never had a community of learners that interacted in exactly the same way. As educators, we have to be agile.  Each day. Each hour. Each minute.

Boxed curriculum is far too static for the dynamic stories that fill a classroom. Unfortunately, it is boxed curriculum that dictates the learning in most schools. Walk into any classroom and you will see purchased curriculum. Schools even go so far as to brand themselves by the type of curriculum they’ve purchased. In the end it’s all the same. Static. Even the differentiation found in boxed curriculum is written as something that we do on behalf of students. “We will do something to our instruction so that the student can be more successful at meeting the requirements and goals set by norms.” This type of differentiation believes that by tweaking the way teachers  teach, it will make students better fit the system.

At Anastasis, we don’t purchase any boxed curriculum. At all. We are identity honoring, and we have yet to find a curriculum that takes into account the many stories that fill our building. The boxed curriculum packed full of differentiation strategies can’t hold a candle to what we’ve chosen to be guided by: Inquiry. Inquiry is a natural differentiator, but it isn’t something done on a student’s behalf; rather, inquiry empowers students as their own differentiators. Inquiry opens up the world of learning. It’s connective and has depth. It’s limitless. It honors identity by putting students in the driver seat.

Boxed curriculum gives students a map of a city. It details the exact destination, the route that must be taken, the transportation that must be used, and even the time that a student should arrive at the destination. Boxed curriculum’s goal is to get students to a destination as quickly as possible. Often students don’t even see why the destination is important or how it connects to the pre-determined stops along the way.

Inquiry opens limitless possibilities and puts students in charge of charting their own course. Instead of a map of the city, they are given a globe. They get to choose the route, destination, the transportation they will use. They get to decide where they will slow down to spend extra time exploring. They get to experience the joy in the journey. With inquiry, we offer provocations that set them off, but the journey, that’s for the student. The things they will see and experience, the connections they will make, the growth they’ll experience, the collision of ideas with classmates, it will be theirs.

The beauty of inquiry is that it honors the individual. It sends the subliminal message that we trust students to be learners, that they are capable, that they can do meaningful things without outside scripting. It demonstrates the deep belief that we are all learning beings. It reveals to kids that their interests/gifts/passions ARE learning. Suddenly they recognize that all learning is connected and living. That learning isn’t about school, it’s LIFE.

To reduce learning down to a scripted curriculum is wrong. It’s insulting. It puts learning in a box, limits it. It insinuates that learning has a beginning (Chapter 1) and an end (the test). It tells kids when they hit road blocks that their is something wrong with them (“I guess I’m just not good at math/reading/science/writing/history), instead of something wrong with the route chosen for them.

Inquiry is about a growth mind-set. Students see when they hit a hard spot in learning that there are ways to push in. They realize that they can chart a completely new path of discovery. They begin to see that maybe learning isn’t even contained to the continents and traditional modes of travel. They explore the possibility of choosing the moon, rockets as a mode of transportation. When this is possible why would we only give students a map of a city and try to tell them that it is learning?

Inquiry is identity honoring. It’s learning alive. A living curriculum.

 

 

In defense of humanity: what we value

Perhaps the most disheartening outcome of the systematization of education is the way that it dehumanizes classrooms. Emboldened by being ‘the best,’ our education system has become blinded to the individual. The student-with-a-name. We’ve exploited our students for bragging rights of having a top performing school. The best test scores. Better than the others. Sometimes we even manage to convince ourselves that aiming for high-test scores is a noble goal. That it will make our country strong.

That, as a result, our students will be relevant in a global economy.

We’ve justified our actions for so long and sold each other on the idea that higher standards, more accountability (read testing), more ‘rigor’ will bring success, make us happy.

All the while we lose.

Lose ourselves, our identity, our uniqueness, our voice.

May we, as educators, stand up and defend the humanity in our classrooms!

We need the audacity to step outside of a system that forgets the individual. The student-with-a-name. To leave the perceived comfort of false/forced/misguided data that convinces us on paper that we are doing it right.

What is it that we value?

Are we really willing to trade meaning for the perception of being collectively ‘the best’ because the test says so?

What if learning as a human endeavor is too big and beautiful to fit into the tiny, meaningless data battles we insist on?

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply believe that the initiatives that call for increased accountability, higher standards, and additional data collection come from the right place of doing right by kids. Of making education more equitable for all. But the goal is wrong. We can’t focus first on numbers and being competitive on global tests.

Ignoring who a child is misses the core of what education must be about.

These initiatives and education movements are culpable in forgetting and overlooking that we are actually teaching individuals who have names. We’ve lost the plot in education and made it about competition (whether we’ll own up to that, or not).

Who a child is, is the core of what education must be about. Recognizing that the population is made up of individuals, unique in the whole of history, who have something important to offer the world. By truly honoring that humanity of the individual, we can collaborate with the rest of the world in such a way that collectively we can solve the problems of today.

Shifting education so systemically can feel overwhelming, impossible even, but it is up to each of us to decide that it is going to be different. It is up to us to uphold humanity, to recognize the individual, the student-with-a-name.

The good news: you don’t need permission to do this. Honestly, you don’t! The first step to restoring humanity is to decide that you are going to value the individuals that make up your class, your school, above all else. Commit that they won’t become numbers, scores, or data points.

Decision made?

Good.

Where do you start? By getting to know your students-with-names.

At Anastasis Academy, we’ve decided that above all else, we will value the identity of all of our students. Because this is a core value, we’ve built it into our school year. Before our first day of school, we hold two days that we call “Learner Profile Days.” Parents sign their child up for a one hour, one-on-one conference between the student and teacher. During this hour, our teacher’s job is to get to know the student. We ask a host of questions that inevitably come with nuance and supporting stories. Then the kids interact with Learning Genome card sets to identify their learning style preferences, their multiple intelligence strengths, and their brain dominance. The result is a Learner Profile.

Learning Genome Card Set

This profile is our starting point for every decision we make. When you begin the year this way, it is impossible to think of students as data points. When you listen to their stories, you learn their feelings, and experiences, and values, and habits of mind, and gain a picture of who they are.

You can do this, you can make the decision to take time out of your first weeks of school and gain a picture of who your students are. What do you value?

The anatomy of a Learner Profile:

 

Anatomy of a Learner Profile

Student Name- In the whole of history, there has never been another one just like them. With this name comes unique gifts, passions, and a vantage point on the world. With this name comes unique genius all their own. The student name is a bold reminder of the identity.

Interests/Passions- This is where we begin to learn about student passions, their likes and dislikes, their hurts, and the things that make them feel alive. In this one-on-one interview, we hear stories, often these questions will lead students down a thought trail that gives us insight.

Learning Style Preference- Learning Style preferences do not indicate that this is the only modality that the student can learn with; however, when we know the preferences that a student has we can make better decisions about introducing new learning. We discover Learning Style Preferences through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Learning Styles

Multiple Intelligence Strengths- Howard Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences details eight distinct intelligences. All learners have the capacity to learn and understand in a variety of ways, each learner differs in their strengths of these intelligences. Discovering a students unique mixture of strengths allows us to better direct students in learning and curiosity. We discover Multiple Intelligence Strengths through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Multiple Intelligence Strengths

Brain Dominance- Learning about a student’s preference in brain dominance allows us to make better decisions about how we design our classroom, how we design learning experiences, and how students will approach learning and assessment. We discover Brain Dominance through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Brain Dominance

 Strengths Finder- This is where we gain insight into our students strengths and the way passion can collide with learning experiences. We use Thrively.

If we do nothing else right, let’s make this our priority

Without fail, every kindergarten student at Anastasis has answered this question the exact same way, “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would you change?”

Answer: “Nothing.”

Nothing.

Without fail!

In fact as we build our Learner Profile, when we reach this question, our youngest tend to tilt their heads to the side in confusion. It’s that same look that a puppy gives you when they are trying to work out what you are saying. They are totally puzzled as to why we would ask them such an absurd question.

What would they change?

Nothing.

Young students believe that who they are is exactly who they should be.

They carry no embarrassment or shame about it. They are proud of who they are. They like who they are.

We’ve found that students who started their schooling at Anastasis (in other words, they’ve never attended any other school) still answer this way regardless of how old they are. Change? Why would I change?

They answer, “Nothing.”

They answer, “I like myself!”

When students enter Anastasis later in their schooling, they answer differently. Somewhere around 8 years old the answer changes. They want to be taller. They want to change their “color.” They want to be better at reading. Better at math. They want to be faster. Different from the way that they currently are. You begin to hear the heartbreak of comparison that they carry.

As schools, if we did nothing else right, helping students see the value in who they are is a win. To believe that who they are is okay, and beautiful, and right.

How do we keep that?

How do we make our schools and classrooms a place where students can be proud of who they are? How do we create a culture that cultivates this sense of rightness from within?

This sense of identity impacts every other part of what we do as educators.

Without this, all of our talk about making school a ‘safe place’ is superficial. We start in the wrong place. We don’t often get to the root of what makes a place safe. When students don’t feel secure in who they are, there really isn’t any place that feels safe. Students are living in the insecurity of comparison, of wishing they were something different, of wishing that their reality was different. They feel judged by others because they judge themselves harshly.

When students are secure with themselves, they can be vulnerable. They can be silly and take risks in front of others. This is a universal truth. When students feels comfortable doing their own thing, they aren’t worried that they look different, or act different, or like different things. They can be secure in who they are and with who others are. They can take risks knowing that if they do fail, it doesn’t define them.

They can do the scary things.

How do we help students maintain the sense of self and identity? At Anastasis, it all starts with knowing the individual, with honoring the humanity. At the beginning of each year, we spend our first two days of school getting to know every individual at Anastasis. Each student signs up for an hour long one-on-one meeting with their teacher. During this meeting, we ask a lot of questions (one of them being “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”), we identify strengths, interests, and passions. Then we play three card ‘games’ with students. These help us to identify learning style preferences, multiple intelligence strengths and brain dominance. We build a learner profile to help us understand who our students are. We follow these two days with ‘detox week,’ identity day, and a “Who we are” inquiry block. Throughout detox week, identity day, and the “Who we are” inquiry block we are helping students appreciate who they are. We celebrate it. As students  value themselves as individuals, we work to build community by helping students see the value that others have in their uniqueness.

2016-04-17 13.28.36

This process of building a Learner Profile was initially tech based as the beginning portion of the Learning Genome Project. After starting Anastasis, I began to realize that this process of building the profile should never be tech based. By making this process a one-on-one between teacher and student, we’ve begun by building relationship. By making it a card game that students interact with, we’re able to build a richer profile. As students interact with the cards and the teacher, they begin to tell stories and we get incredible nuance that would be impossible to capture with technology alone. This interaction of teacher and student is the first building block of community, of getting to know each other, of relationship, and vulnerability. It is from this place that we begin each year.

*If you are interested in building a profile the way that we do at Anastasis, you can now purchase the Learning Genome Project Learner Profile card sets. They’ll help you identify a student’s learning style preferences, multiple intelligence strengths, and brain dominance. It is from this profile that we are able to truly individualize the learning at Anastasis.

If we get nothing else right, let’s make this our priority: valuing the individual. The student-with-a-name. To maintain the rightness within, the beauty that makes us individuals.

 

 

What is sacred in education?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

We hold certain beliefs about education because those who came before us set the ground work for how we operate schools. Those who came before us existed in quite a different reality of what it meant to be educated. At the dawn of industrialization, much of what we see in education probably made sense.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

In the last three months, I’ve led in the neighborhood of 300 teachers/administrators/district-heads through Anastasis Academy. They all come with a similar goal: they want to see how we personalize learning. Inevitably as I’m touring people through, they’ll exclaim over how articulate our students are in explaining what they are learning and the projects they are working on. They’ll show surprise over the way that our students are able to manage the freedom they are given to choose the “classroom” they will work in. They see it, and they still don’t always believe it works. We’ve been told that Anastasis is a “unicorn.” As our visitors talk among themselves, I can hear the “yeah, but…” Doubt creeps in. They try to make what they see at Anastasis fit the constructs they’ve already put into place.

Yesterday, I had a rare moment to jump into an early #edchat conversation on Twitter (spring break for the win!). The chat was about small class size and the way that changing the class size might change learning for the better. I had a lot to say about the positives that I see from having small class sizes. At Anastasis, our classes are capped at 12. One teacher, twelve students. Once again, I was met with awe…and again we became the “unicorn.” Many could see the benefits that come with smaller classes, but immediately pointed toward dollars being too tight to ever have hope of it being a reality. I can understand that viewpoint, with ever tightening budgets it is one that can feel too large to overcome.

When we started Anastasis Academy it was with no endowments, no grants, no private backers (unless you count the $160 I put in for a domain name, information night handouts, and establishing ourselves with the state of Colorado as a non-profit). Anastasis is a tuition funded school. Tuition is $9000 each year. I did not choose that $9000/year amount arbitrarily. I chose it because at the time, it was the per-pupil expenditure in the public school district where we started. I chose that number because I believe that the type of education that students enjoy at Anastasis should be available to ALL students, whether or not their family can afford a private education. I chose that number because I wanted to show that education CAN be different, and it isn’t really about money.

When we free ourselves from the perceived rigidity of the system that we are in, and begin with a clean slate, we are free to see things from new perspectives. Rather than trying to fit small class sizes into your current budget and system, try approaching the problem from a clean slate. I hear some of you “yeah, butting…” already. “Yeah, but we don’t have the luxury to start from a clean slate, we have to work in the system.”

Try this as an exercise.

It’s not meant to free you from the system, but instead to give you freedom in your thinking. By beginning ideation away from the rigid constructs, you may stumble onto an idea that you hadn’t considered before. It may give you just enough freedom to come up with a new approach that might just work in your system. The “yeah, but” statement puts a stop to the creativity, beginning with no constraints can lead to new ways of thinking and possibility. Instead of “yeah, but” try playing the “what if” game. What if none of these constraints were in our way? What if we could make decisions apart from the system we are in? What if we had a blank slate to dream up our perfect school? What if money was no object?

When beginning with a clean slate, I always like to begin with the non-negotiable. What do we value that we aren’t willing to compromise? What is impossible to do without? Begin with what you must have. When I went through this exercise, I found that what I value most is students-with-names. Kids who are unique individuals, and are treated as such, is central to all decisions that we make at Anastasis.

We begin with students with names.

Next: How do we support students-with-names? It’s been my experience that the best way to support students-with-names is not with a fancy new curriculum, new technology, or better standards; but by the people you surround them with. The teachers, those who will apprentice students in the art of learning. We empower teachers to be teachers. And so, our first decision is made. Teachers are non-negotiable. We have to find the best, for us this is defined as those who know how to build community, how to make students central to the learning process, those who are instructional designers and don’t rely on boxed curriculum, those that are empathetic and thoughtful.

Then: Where do we do this? A space for the learning to happen is important. We need a home base. It needs to fit our vision. It needs to be flexible. We also need to show students that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of our school. That it can happen anywhere, that there is always someone to learn from. And so, our second decision is made. We need a place to do the learning that fits our vision. We need a portion of our budget set aside to get students outside of the building once a week. We need them to be able to meet experts. We need transportation to make us mobile.

Finally: What will drive our learning? If we are valuing students-with-names, boxed one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer feels like a good fit. It doesn’t ladder up to support our non-negotiable. And so, our third decision is made. We will be inquiry based, we will help students think deeply, ask beautiful questions, problem solve, and chase learning. We will not put money into boxed curriculum, instead we will purchase only those books, experiences, resources, etc. that we need as inquiry unfolds. We will be agile.

The bulk of my budget at Anastasis goes toward those things I value most. I hire teachers first, lease the space that we learn in and learning-excursions/transportation second, and support inquiry with resources third.

As you dream, start with what is necessary. Then move on to what is desired (realize that you may be able to fill these wishes outside of your budget creatively- we are a 1:1 BYOD iPad school because it is the only supply on our supply list. For our families, it is more cost-effective to own the technology than to fill a list of school supplies each year. As a school, it is more cost-effective for us to purchase the typical school list for students than to own the technology). Finally fill in with what is left.

Do this with your colleagues. Dream together. Start with a clean slate. Use the improv ethic. In improv theater, the rule is that you go with what you are given. This usually consists of a fictional identity, a scene that is set up for you. Ground Rules: You can’t suddenly chuck the scene mid-speech. You can’t contradict lines fed to you by fellow actors…it will kill the scene because there will be nothing to say after it.

Try employing the improv ethic at your next staff meeting. Liberate yourselves by giving your minds a ground zero, clean slate, to begin thinking. Choose a problem that bothers you in education (class size is a great one!). Why does it bother you? Then, as an ideation experiment add a change to the scene and follow the implications of that change from one scene to the next. How does it change things for the budget? How does it change things for students? Parents? Teachers? In improv they teach this idea of “yes, and…” Solve the problem and look for a solution rather than implementing the “yeah, but…” that limits ideas and shuts down new thinking. Dream big. Dream without the limitations you might ‘know’ exist. As I said, in the process you may discover a solution or way around a very real limitation you wouldn’t have considered or come up with otherwise. In a very real way, this blog (Dreams of Education) did that for me. This was a safe place to have crazy dreams that ended up becoming a new reality. If you had asked me about starting a school 6 years ago, I would have adamantly told you that I would never start a school. That I didn’t even know the first place to start.

Try following your dreaming and thinking down a rabbit hole, giving permission for absurdity and silliness. This is often what the brainstorming and ideation phase of design thinking looks like. Often solutions grow out of what at first glance appears as absurd and impossible. Shut down the inner critic- suspend the naysayers and come up with something new.

What is truly sacred in education?

The incredible, creative, unique individuals that we call students.

That is sacred.

That is non-negotiable.

Making 2016 More Awesome #PD

This week at Anastasis, we watched Kid President’s rules for being more awesome in this new year: “What if all made it our resolution to make this year awesome for somebody else?” (If you haven’t shared it with  your kids…you should!)

I’m taking this resolution to heart and want to help make your year awesome! In February, we want to energize you to make the rest of 2016 more awesome with the 5Sigma Education Conference.

5Sigma Education Conference is THE conference to attend if you are interested in:

  • Innovative school models- Tour Anastasis Academy with our students. Ask questions, meet our team, and see education re-imagined.
  • Learner Profiles- How do develop a complete learner profile to inform individualization
  • A fresh approach to assessment- Explore the goals of assessment and how we’ve re-thought assessment
  • A new perspective on classroom space/building use
  • Inquiry learning
  • Professional development approaches that transform
  • Building a strong school community
  • Learning excursions
  • Innovative uses of technology and ePortfolios
  • Prototype labs and maker spaces
  • Incredible conversations with world changing thinkers and innovators

We can’t wait to meet you all in person!

5Sgima Education Conference