Custom Learning

How to make magic: create space

So often the magic at Anastasis happens in the gaps. In those moments where you don’t expect anything big or important. The magic happens when we create space.

Every Wednesday we have a late start for students. They come an hour later than usual, teachers show up at the normal time. During this time we eat breakfast together, we talk about the silly sitcoms we watched together (virtually) the night before, we review upcoming events. There isn’t a “real” agenda. This is the time where we share stories, talk about what brilliant (or not-so-brilliant) things that our students are doing, talk about the books we are reading, the videos we are watching. Sometimes we spend time writing happy emails/texts/notes to our students and our families. Basically, we just have space every week where magic moments can happen. We can go weeks without any major magic moments where we are all collaborating, and excited, and things are happening. Sometimes we are dragging. Sometimes we just need to gripe about cars being stolen, and illness, and the frustrations that come with running a school. But sometimes, sometimes magic happens.

A few weeks ago, we were talking about our Capstone students. Lance was sharing about the work they are doing with refugees, and how the girls were hoping to put on an event to raise awareness about refugees and raise some money for different organizations. He talked about the speakers that they were reaching out to and what they were hoping to see out of the night. He talked about the spoken word poem that the girls were writing to present during their event. In the midst of this, Michelle mentioned an amazing TED talk by Amal Kassir who comes from a Syrian refugee family, “and I think she is in Denver.” She sent us all Amal’s spoken word. Incredible!!

Lance and the girls reached out to Amal to find out if she might be available as a speaker during the refugee event. Unfortunately she wasn’t. She was to be receiving an award for her work the same evening. At Anastasis, we aren’t great at taking ‘no’ for an answer, so Lance asked if she might be available to come and talk to all of our students during a morning Metanoia (our daily community gathering/devotion time). She agreed! MAGIC.

Amal at Metanoia

Her presence, her grace, her thoughtfulness.

Here was the daughter of Syrian refugees, proudly wearing her head scarf, a Muslim sharing her worldview with our Christian community during a devotion time. Amal began her talk with our students by singing a hymn that Elvis sang, instantly putting our community at ease. Then she shared her gift of spoken word. She shared poetry about refugees, about feeling like a stranger in your own land, about war, about the struggle we all face as humans. It was absolutely beautiful and perfect. She hugged each and every one of our students and took fake selfies with them. Then she stayed to listen and give advice to our Capstone students as they shared the spoken word they would perform during their refugee event. The most impactful for our Capstone Girls, “remember that you aren’t there to share your voice, you are there to be the voice for those who don’t have one.” This meant the absolute world to these girls who have a new idol. Amal impacted our entire community in amazing ways. Every child walked away in awe, knowing more about refugees, about the human struggle, about war and spirit.

In awe of Amal Kassir

Fake selfies with Amal Kassir

Amal Kassir listens to Anastasis spoken word

Magic.

Magic because we created space. We abandoned the idea that every week has to have a structured agenda and gave ourselves space to share and dream together.

 

When everyone in the building has agency

Last year we realized that we had created a unique problem for ourselves: our students were outpacing our biggest expectations and ambitions. They were, without a doubt, ready for the next academic leap of learning. Three of our students were taking advantage of the lack of ceiling in their learning and were quickly chewing up the academic expectations usually reserved for 15 and 16 year olds. The problem: we are a kindergarten through eighth grade school. These were 12 and 13 year olds.

As a staff, we were regularly astounded by the quality of writing that came out of these talented kids. Wise beyond their years, the depth of understanding and connections they made in inquiry were truly incredible. No less incredible, the literature they were enjoying and the math they were flying through.

A few months into the school year their teacher, Lance Finkbeiner, came to me with a crazy idea (my favorite kind!). What if instead of a typical 8th grade, ‘final,’ year at Anastasis, we offered a gap year before they went to high school? What if they took everything they’ve learned through their time at Anastasis and did the “next level” of it? Maybe they could even get high school elective credit for it. We could introduce them to even more great literature, maybe give them internship opportunities, they can jump all in to exploring their passions.

If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I love these kinds of ideas and dreams. Of course I said, “let’s do it!” We put a rough plan together of what this thing-we’ve-never-done-before could look like. Then we shared the madness with the families of these students. “They are ready to start high school next year, but would you trust us to do this-thing-we’ve-never-done-before and use your kids as guinea pigs?” (Okay, so we were a little more eloquent than that.)

If you’ve ever started something like this from scratch, you know that things rarely go according to the original plan. The outcome usually resembles something that rhymed-with the original plan. It becomes this living, breathing thing that needs room to grow, adapt, and evolve.

The first thing we learned: Not everyone will think we are as brilliant as we do. Out of the three students we invited to take part in this grand experiment, two jumped in and the third opted to go to high school a year early.

The second thing we learned: High schools aren’t great with working with k-8 schools with crazy ideas (at least the local high schools here weren’t. They weren’t willing (able?) to give credit, even elective, to our students for this experience. Boo. When we get a ‘no’ around here, we don’t tend to back down, instead we double down. High schools won’t give them credit, maybe a university would. As it turns out, our audacious ask was met with a resounding, “yes!”

These students would receive a once-in-a-lifetime experience plus college credit for completing this Capstone year…as 13 year olds!

There were a lot of twists and turns along the way. Things we assumed, evolved as we actually started working. It may not have gone exactly the way we thought, but these girls were given agency over their year and the results were incredible. They were empowered to make meaningful decisions about what the year would look like. They were able to apply all other learning, experience, and inquiry that they’ve been building as an Anastasis student into one spectacular year. They were trusted and mentored as they made decisions. This year was one of creation, exploration, and beauty.

Last week, these students gave their final Capstone presentation.

Jaw dropping.

In my greatest expectations, I couldn’t have anticipated how incredible this year would end up for these young ladies. They read fantastic literature including: Linchpin, Afluenza, Systems Thinking, The Promise of a Pencil, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, and East of Eden, to name a few. From these books their takeaway was, “When we let our inner artist come to the surface, we can make extraordinary change in the world.”

The girls engaged over 30 non-profits to learn more about their work and to see how they might partner with the organizations to solve some of their biggest problems. Out of these 30 organizations, they identified those that they felt most connected to and those they were excited to support. They worked with:

  • Resilience Rising- This organization taught them about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They worked with them to spread awareness and raise money for this organization. The girls hosted a penny war challenge for Anastasis students. They raised just over $1,000 in a week and proudly presented the money to Resilience Rising, praising the important work they are doing in our community. Resilience Rising.JPG
  • Action in Africa- Uganda-based Action in Africa needed a revamp of the art-curriculum that they use with the children in Uganda. The Capstone girls wrote and created examples for 50 art lessons. They engaged design thinking to ensure empathy in their creation. This was proudly presented to one of the Action in Africa founders last week at their final presentation, they were promptly offered a full-time job at Action in Africa if they decided they wanted to skip high school (this was not a joke!). One of the Capstone girls will get to spend part of her summer in Uganda teaching the art curriculum she designed. Action in africa
  • Homeless Awareness- During Homeless awareness month, these girls spent time listening to the stories of the people at Denver Rescue Mission. They created a survey to find out what people could do to best support the homeless in our community. They wondered, what was most valuable? Money? Time? Food? They talked to people who were formerly homeless, as well as those currently experiencing homelessness. What they learned, “we want people to see us. We are still people, look us in the eye, ask us our name, listen to our story.” The girls took this to heart and commissioned the rest of the Anastasis community to do the same. They presented one morning to the whole school during Metanoia. This was followed by putting together hygiene kits that could be kept in the car and handed out on field trips, or as families are out and about. My favorite moment from this morning was an interruption of the Capstone girl’s talk when a student from our youngest class raised her hand and said, “Let’s just call them people.” (Instead of qualifying them as ‘homeless people.’) From the mouth of babes!Denver Rescue Mission
  • Refugee organizations- The girls also met with various local and international refugee organizations. They decided to put on an event where they could connect the community to raise awareness, give people the opportunity to collaborate, and encourage action…contribution. The girls planned and executed the whole event, from asking for donations for their silent auction, to getting food and wine donated, to finding speakers, making invitations, and presenting an original spoken word. This is worthy of a post all it’s own (stay tuned). It was an incredible evening. The girls raised $3000 and were offered jobs by the other organizations involved!refugee night

The girls summed up the Capstone year this way:

  • It was inquiry in action
  • We were able to explore beyond what our teacher planned
  • We were given freedom and privilege in our learning

Megan summed it up well, “This year taught me that we are capable!”

Indeed they are!

The Capstone Year was made possible because the teachers at Anastasis are given agency. They are empowered to try crazy things, to dream, and do things we’ve never done. In turn, they give students the same agency. This is the result. Summed up giving these girls agency over their learning resulted in:

  • Meeting with over 30 non-profits (all commented on how surprised they were at how comfortable the girls were having ‘adult’ conversations).
  • Directly impacted 8 non-profit organizations
  • Practiced design thinking that resulted in 50 art lessons
  • Gave inquiry legs
  • Put on 1 incredible event
  • Raised $4000 for the organizations they worked with
  • Saw that they are capable
  • Connected in empathy
  • Completed in-depth art projects and got to learn from an artist at the Denver Art Museum
  • Made over 100 hygiene bags with other students at Anastasis
  • Created ripples that will continue long after this year
  • Put together a homeless awareness sheet
  • Read incredible literature
  • Were offered 2 jobs
  • Received 3 graduate credits each
  • One got to spend nearly a month in Nepal with her father climbing to base-camp and visiting orphanages
  • Got the experience of a lifetime

 

What does agency look like in your school?

Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

This week I read a blog post by @whatedsaid that so succinctly describes the beauty of  inquiry for true differentiation. The post, How are all learners’ needs catered for?, proposes two scenarios for differentiation. The first describes carefully crafted options that provide access to a variety of learners.  The second looks at differentiation through inquiry. In this scenario there is an interesting open-ended question that naturally provides students ownership of their learning.  Toward the end of the post, @whatedsaid poses the question: “Does agency and ownership allow learners to learn at their own pace, seeking support when they need it?”

Where is the ownership of learning? In the first scenario, the onus of differentiation is on the teacher. It is up to the teacher to offer a variety of options that the learning could take. Ideally, enough entry points are offered so that all learners get their needs met. In the second scenario, students are empowered to own and direct their own learning through the inquiry process.

How do we help students encounter their own genius so that they 1) can engage the inquiry process, 2) learn at their own pace, and 3) Self-advocate when they need support?

At Anastasis, we cultivate student agency so that each child can uncover their own genius. Each student can drive their own learning in, and out of, school. Colleen Broderick of Re-School Colorado recently wrote about what this looks like at Anastasis in an article titled: First Steps Toward Agency: The Learner Profile.

So often when teachers come through Anastasis, they see our learner profile cards and think of the Learner Profile as a tool they use to differentiate the learning. The goal behind our Learner Profile is not to serve the teacher or the system, but rather the learner. The goal is to give students insight into themselves as learners so that as they engage the inquiry process they can make decisions to appropriately self-pace their learning, follow areas of passion, and self-advocate when they need additional support. The result is students who are equipped as life-learners. They don’t have to rely on a teacher to differentiate to meet their needs because it becomes part of their own learning process.

@whatedsaid, thank you for so perfectly summing up teacher-driven differentiation, and the differentiation that comes as a natural outcome of the inquiry process when we support kids in building agency!

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.

 

 

Note to self: the joy is in the journey

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The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a truly incredible place. When you first pull up, it’s not much to look at. It isn’t until you are right up on it that you can really appreciate the sheer magnitude of the Dunes.

Then begins the climb. Shoes aren’t really conducive to this particular climb; they get instantly bogged down by the sand. The sand is often too hot to do the climb barefoot; my method of choice is two pairs of socks and no shoes. If you’ve ever run on a beach, you know that sand is a different running experience than asphalt or grass. It requires more from you, it’s constantly shifting. This is particularly true when the sand is in dune form and the goal is to reach the top. One step forward inevitably feels like taking two back. It’s slow going and can feel endless. As you actually climb up the dunes, scale gets lost and everything begins to look the same. I remember on my first trip to the Great Sand Dunes making it to the ‘top’ only to realize that there was another peak to climb that I couldn’t see as I was climbing the first. So, you slug through sand and keep climbing, muscles start screaming, wind blows sand in your eyes and nose, the sun reflects so brightly off of the sand that your eyes water, and you are hot and sweaty. You start to wonder if it is worth it? How much better could the view really be from the top? You reach the next peak and there is more. It feels never ending and you begin to wonder if this is some cosmic joke and there is no top of the dunes. Of course, it isn’t. It is in this moment that having a friend along is helpful. They cheer you on, reminding you of what is waiting.

There is a top.

It is glorious.

It is breath taking and awe-inspiring.

Beyond the view, you sit atop the sand knowing that in the past, you would have been in water. Incredible. An experience that could only happen this way in this moment in time.

The trip down the dunes takes no time at all. There is great joy in sledding down the sand, or rolling, or taking giant leaps down and pretending that you are on the moon.

Learning is a lot like climbing the Great Sand Dunes. You might begin the process excited, or nervous, or with anticipation. And likely, at some point it will start feeling like work. There will be moments when it feels frustrating to learn something new. Moments when it feels like climbing a hill of sand. One step forward and two back. There may even be those moments when you feel like giving up, like maybe the view from the top isn’t worth it. Moments when it feels hopeless and you are tired, and sandy, and hot. But, just like with the dunes, when you reach the top, the feeling is like no other.

Glorious.

Breath-taking.

Awe inspiring.

Elation.

It is in that moment that you can appreciate the journey. All of those moments that you pressed on despite wanting to give up. You have the gift of hindsight knowing that you made it to the top. And then the trek down the dunes where it is fun, playful, where you can appreciate all of the hard work that it took because now you can use what you’ve learned.

I wonder why we don’t share this more often with kids? That learning can be hard, that it can feel endless, but that just like climbing a sand dune, that struggle is worth it. That when you reach the top, you appreciate it all the more because of what you overcame on the journey.

We live in a society where everything appears to be easy. Where what we see is the happily-ever-after part of the story. When we share on Instagram, it’s rarely the picture during the climb in the moment that we are ready to give up. More often, the picture shared is the perfect shot from the top. The one that has been retouched so that you can’t tell we are covered in sand, and sweaty, and almost didn’t make it. We share the happily-ever-after where the journey is glossed over and we’ve skipped straight to the win.

Consider the way that our grading system sends this same message. A grade celebrates and highlights one moment in time and completely ignores the journey. We celebrate the test score, the grade, and fail to talk about the journey: the excitement, frustration, the moments where we wanted to give up. We fail to talk about the journey of learning. I think this failure to talk about journey leads to apathy. It leads kids to give up too soon. Or assume that others can learn, but they don’t have what it takes.

Our students generally only see the happily-ever-after part of the story. This is true even as we watch documentaries like Caine’s Arcade. Students see the highlight reel of Caine’s story and the way that a movement started. How often do we help our students remember all of those moments that Caine sat alone waiting for someone to show up and care? How often do we talk about the trial and error and amount of time that it takes to build an arcade like Caine had? I’m not suggesting that Caine’s Arcade isn’t valuable for students to see, but equally valuable is the discussion about the hard parts. The parts where you feel like giving up. The journey.
I had a visit from an Anastasis alumni a few weeks ago. She is frustrated that she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do in life. That she can’t see the path, but she knows she has worth, and passion, and something to say. “I just feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I should know what I’m supposed to do next.” She wants so badly to see the finish line…the happily-ever-after. She wants to know that she isn’t going to be climbing a peak on the dunes only to realize that it isn’t the top, that there is another peak.

I tried to reassure her, “None of us know what we are doing. We all choose a direction (and if we are honest, we really don’t know if it is the ‘right’ one) life has a way of shifting and suddenly our path looks different than we would have ever imagined.”

She told me that it was easy for me to say, “Look at you, you started a school! You know what you want to do and you are doing it. You are living your dream!”

And it was then.

In that moment that I knew that I hadn’t shared enough of my journey. I had only shared the highlight reel. She has only seen my “happily-ever-after” (if only she knew!) She doesn’t know the parts of the climb when I was frustrated, hot, had sand in my eyes, and wanted to give up. She doesn’t see those moments when I’ve reached a peak hoping that it is the top only to look up and realize that I haven’t made it. (Riley…this happens to me DAILY!!)

I wonder what would happen if we helped students see that learning isn’t really about the happily-ever-after moment. It isn’t about the grade. It isn’t about the career that we have.

It is about the journey that we take.

The moments of struggle.

The glorious moments of inspiration and breakthrough.

The fun and elation we experience when we are doing something we could have never imagined for ourselves. That in hindsight the journey makes sense, but often as we are living it we are unsure of where we are in the journey, how far we have yet to go, and if we are even headed in the right direction.How do we help students to see that none of us really have this figured out?

How can we be more transparent and help reveal the joy in the journey?

 

One of the things I love about Anastasis is the intentional travel that we do with students. Our Jr. High students take several trips a year where they get the opportunity to live this kind of journey. They visit the Great Sand Dunes, or the Black Hills, or Santa Barbara, or Costa Rica, or Moab. They get to experience some of this struggle first hand and then reflect on the journey (read those reflections here). It’s an incredible way to get them outside of comfort zones, build community, and help them experience the joy in the journey. (Hat Tip to Simply Venture for making those trips possible for our students!)

What language, systems, and structures do we have in place in our schools and classrooms that keep kids believing that they can skip directly to the happily-ever-after? Can we be more transparent as teachers, as administrators, as parents in sharing our journey struggle and all? Can we change the way that we grade to help students track the learning journey instead of just the ending point? Can we spend time helping students recognize that every story includes moments of struggle, or feelings of being lost? Can we reflect on the happily-ever-after moments with students and help them recognize the journey that it took to get there?

Can we reveal joy in the journey?

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.