Design

10 Questions every school should ask to build healthy culture

Culture is often something that we talk about in education. Mostly we talk about building a “healthy” culture. Less often we talk about what that really means, and what it looks like, and how to do it.

It’s strange to me that something so fundamental to how a school runs gets so often overlooked. Or maybe it’s that we take for granted that it will just “be there.” Culture can just happen, but I would argue that it’s much better when it’s intentionally built. How do we do it? With so many different stakeholders in education, how do we truly build a healthy culture?

At Anastasis, our culture begins with students. Always. I know that every school claims this, but when we say that we start with students, I mean the actual students with names. When we talk about what we will look like, we talk in terms of the students in our school each year. Camryn. Dakota. Johnny. Kip. Bodie. THOSE students. We do it with them in mind. From there, we consider what it is that we want for those students. What is it that we fundamentally believe about them? What do we hope they will leave us with?

These are the 10 questions that we ask ourselves that inform our culture. Try beginning with these questions as a staff and see how the decisions you make together (and the culture you build) are transformed.

Question 1: What will we do here? This becomes our mission statement. 

What we will do: Apprentice children in the art of learning through inquiry, creativity, critical thinking, discernment, and wisdom. Provide an education model that honors and supports children as the unique and creative individuals they were created to be.

Question 2: Who will we be?

Who we will be: A close community of learners that includes students of all ages, parents, teachers, and support staff. A culture that values unique individuals and fosters a love of learning, curiosity, critical thinking and discovery. A community that strives to show each other love, acceptance, and respect through attitude and service. A school that focuses on each student’s individual needs by creating a customized learning strand for each individual. A school that connects with other learners around the world, developing global citizens. A community (staff included) that is passionately curious, willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. A school that utilizes the technology available to enhance learning. A staff that believes that learning happens within a student, not to a student. A place where learning is immersive, authentic, realistic, and connected. A place that goes beyond building self esteem to build self efficacy, learning with intent. A community of independent and resilient learners.

Question 3: How will we work?

How we will work: We will strive to serve students, to honor them as unique, creative individuals. Our interactions with students, families, and staff will be respectful and build trust. We will be learners. We will work toward a community and culture of respect, fun, and engagement. We will be fully alive. We will be creative. We will be curious. We will grow and evolve to meet the needs of students every day, month, and year.

Question 4: What will we value?

What we value: Freedom in learning. Getting our hands dirty, learning experientially. Play. Indulging our curiosities. Making mistakes and failing forward. Being open to other perspectives, views, and ideas. Independent thinking. Collaboration-connection is a multiplier. Being active. Learning without ceasing. Connecting dots (making connections within learning). Actively thinking about concepts (not just fact finding). Agility and spontaneity. Environment plays an important role in the learning continuum. Forward thinking pedagogy. Empathy and social compassion. Teacher as learners and learners as teachers. Humor and Lightheartedness. Tools that support learning. Being action researchers.

Question 5: What will we deliver?

What we will deliver: Students that are fully alive, who know their unique place in this world and know how their gifts and talents can be used to support a world that desperately needs their contribution. Passionate learners who have the ability and drive to spend a lifetime learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Question 6: What do we believe about achievement?

What we believe about achievement: It is complex and multifaceted. No one assessment can accurately measure it. It is individual. It is ABOUT and FOR the individual. It is fluid. It is boundless.

Question 7: What do we believe about learners?

What we believe about learners: Every child can learn. Every child has unique gifts and talents. Every child has a natural curiosity and an inclination to figure the world out. Every child learns in ways that are unique to them. Every child learns at their own developmental pace. Every child has an inclination to discover how the world works.

Question 8: What do we believe about personalization?

What we believe about personalization: We must be aware of student readiness-we want to present students with a task that is challenging for their current level of knowledge understanding or skill while providing a support system to bridge the gap. We must be aware of interest- linked to current student interests and helping the student discover new interests. We must be aware of learning preferences. We must be aware of the foundation-foundational knowledge and skills give us a strong base for new learning. We must help students discover new learning. We must vary the product or outcome that we expect of students in order for them to demonstrate understanding. We need ongoing formative assessment to drive new learning. We need to allow for flexible groupings so that students have a wide variety of opportunities to interact with a wide range of peers. We must emphasize individual growth and betterment of self instead of competition with others. We must partner together, taking advantage of other staff members strengths to support all students. We transfer ownership of learning from the adults to the students, a true apprenticeship. We must create flexible learning environments that meet the needs of a variety of postures of learning.

Question 9: Based on Questions 1-8, what will define our culture?

Our culture wil be: A place where all learners are safe to take risks. A place where students are encouraged to find answers from exploration and experimentation. A place where meaningful feedback is provided. A community where every student, staff and family member is part of the learning community. A place where we model persistence and talk about ourselves as learners. It’s okay not to know everything. A place where we set our eyes on what is possible and we encourage others to do the same. A place that is flexible, there is always more than one way to do something. A place where students develop empathy and fight their own battles. A place where the learning process can be “messy.” A place that takes into account student choice and preference. A place that helps students learn how to think, not what to think.

We will be intentional.

Question 10: Based on questions 1-9, what code will we live by?

The Anastasis Code: 

We take care of each other.

If someone needs help, we give it. If we need help, we ask.

It’s all a gift. (No complaining, no complaining, no complaining.)

There’s glory in making a mistake. (Mistakes are teachers.)

Make the kind assumption. (When someone behaves poorly, give them the benefit of the doubt.)

No skunking! (Skunks spray negative energy when they are afraid. Don’t be a skunk.)

Respect each other. (Look at the person talking to you. Make requests in the form of a question, not a demand. Don’t interrupt conversations already in progress.) 

 

Above all. We are a team. If the team isn’t healthy, nothing else can be. 

 

IMG_7564 2

Starting by asking and building around these 10 questions should inform EVERY other thing that you do. Everything matters. Everything reflects and indicates the culture that you have.

A few examples from Anastasis:

Announcing class placement for the year. Often schools send home a class placement list to parents. Kids anticipate class placement. This is a BIG deal to them. Why would we send a list to parents when we can unveil class placement and celebrate the unveiling with the students? We send out a balloon to each child with the name of the classroom teacher on the balloon. When the ballon gets blown up, the “team” they are on this year gets revealed. (We don’t call our classes by grade level, we call them by team name. Another small thing that reflects our culture. It all matters!)

Anastasis Academy class placement balloon announcement

Back to school night. Typically schools cram everyone into a hot room and give some sort of vision casting or announcements for the year. Then they break into classrooms so that parents can meet the teachers. Teachers go over classroom expectations. At Anastasis, we asked ourselves what one thing we want to accomplish so that by doing it, everything else in the year was made easier. Our answer: Build community. So, this year we sent out an invitation to our families. Pack a picnic. Meet us at a park. Every teacher hosts a blanket. Families and teachers get to know each other. We made up conversation prompts to add an element of fun and to take the pressure off of any introverts (i.e. me!) to get the conversation flowing. Not only do our teachers get to know our families better, the families also get to know the other parents in the class. We’ll toast the end of summer with a glass of champagne, give out all the same packets of papers we normally would, and cheers the start of a new school year.

Anastasis Academy Colorado Christian School

School handbook. Let’s be honest, like 2% of families actually read this important document. It’s low. It’s generally boring. Instead of just sending a community handbook (we do that, too). We also send postcards throughout the year that have just-in-time information from the handbook. The week before Learner Profile meetings, we send a postcard that talks about Learner Profiles. The week before snowy weather, we send a postcard that tells families where they can learn about a school closure. Just-in-time bite-sized information. Who doesn’t love getting a postcard?

Anastasis Academy Community handbook

Professional development: Do you do the same thing you’ve always done? Or do you focus on building community and culture. Here are some ways we’ve done PD: Paddle boarding, happy hour.

The first week of school: Is it jump right in? Or do you take time to get to know your students and “detox” them from false labels they may be carrying about themselves and learning?

The small things really aren’t all that small. It all matters. Without starting from the question framework above, it’s hard to make decisions consistently that will ladder up to the “healthy” culture you are trying to build. Start with the 10. Be intentional about all of it.

P.S. By going through these 10 questions, you’ve also created your staff handbook. Anastasis Academy Teacher Handbook

Advertisements

Building Student Agency with Card Games and Detox Week

Ten years ago, I was a computer teacher and a technology integration specialist. I taught 475 students every week, worked closely with teachers to ingegrate technology meaningully into their classrooms, and worked closely with the curriculum so that I knew how to integrate it meaningfully.

It was in this moment of time that I discovered a catastrophic problem that would change the course of my life: The curriculum didn’t know the students it was designed for. It couldn’t possibly know who they were and what their stories were. As teachers, we knew these stories, and yet we were being held back from fully embracing the identity and genius of the students in our classrooms because we were teaching from a curriculum that didn’t know them. Worse still, testing was dictating what the learning interaction would look like.

I felt a deep sense of urgency to change this…NOW! Because these 475 kids I was teaching every week? They didn’t have the luxury of time for education policymakers to get it right, they (unhelpfully) kept growing up.

I’ve dedicated the last nine years to learning how to honor identity by giving students agency over their learning through personalization. What started as an idea for a piece of technology has turned into a school, which has become a movement of good.

Our goal at Anastasis is to create a high-purpose environment where every student knows who they are, where every student is valued as a member of a team, where feedback is real-time and valuable, where we have the shared goal of becoming the very best version of ourselves.

At Anastasis we begin by connecting. We get to know a student on a deep level, and before the school year even begins, students receive a sense of belonging. Our first weeks of school are all about signaling: you are valuable, you are worth knowing, you are worthy of one-on-one time, you belong here. How do we do this? Through Learner Profile Days and Detox Week.

Learner Profile days are predicated on the belief that every one of our students is standing in a spot in this world that they alone inhabit. Wholely unique in the course of history. They are a collection of their history, experiences, gifts, hopes, their fears and insecurities. We believe that every one of our students holds a place in this world that’s valuable and important. The world needs us to honor these individuals. To see them as individuals and help them grown in their gifts. Our goal can never be to make them close approximations of “perfect student” in a one-size-fits-all system. The complex problems of our world won’t respond to one-size-fits-all solutions. We NEED people with different points of view who can communicate, collaborate, and who can appreciate other points-of-view and gifts as equally valuable, not as competition.

Our first two days of school are designed so that our teachers can have one-on-one time (an hour) with every one of their students. During this hour, they use the Learning Genome Card Sets to help students tell their stories. More than a boiled down version of what categories students trend in as learners, the cards are meant to activate narrative. The cards act as a launching point for students to add details and tell stories about who they are. They help teachers get answers to questions we may not have known to ask. Inevitably we also gain great information about how they like to learn. The real magic is in the stories. In that hour-long one-on-one, students have a safe place to share, they have a captive audience, and teachers get to know them on a deeper level. The kind that usually takes a full year to develop. From this card game, we develop the Learner Profile. This is a document where we record what a student’s learning preferences are. The document is helpful, but it isn’t really the point. The point is connection. The start of relationship and community.

The Learner Profile becomes a place where we help students discover and flourish as individuals who know who they are and why they are here, who know what they are passionate about, who explore the world and make connections with who they are, and to see that each one of them has the capacity to change our world using their gifts. The Learner Profile gives them a starting point to understand what their hearts beat for. What they were uniquely put on this earth to do (and that it’s a never-ending journey!)

Detox Week is a week where we help kids “detox” from the false messages they’ve learned about themselves, community, and learning. We break down the message that they lack in some way, that they may not be “enough.” We work to help kids see that community is more excellent than competition in a learning environment. We want them to understand that real learning is a journey that will include risk, and trials, and setbacks, and failure, and iteration, and success.

During Detox week, kids fail spectacularly. Our goal is ultimately to help them see that Anastasis is a safe place to fail, that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to ask for help, and to iterate on ideas. During Detox Week kids also start to learn that honest, kind, critical feedback will be our norm. We give real feedback because we have high expectations and know that each of them can reach those expectations. Over and over again in this first week of school, we’ve designed the experiences to send the message: You are inherently valuable and worthy. You belong to Anastasis today and in the future. We believe in each of you. It’s okay to keep iterating, in fact, that is learning!
We let kids know that their learning this year won’t be about a grade, it will be about learning. Anastasis will be a safe place to give effort and iterate (by the way, I do the same thing with professional development for teachers: Exhibit A, Exhibit B). During Detox Week we send the message that learning is bigger than school, learning is life. We send the message that there is a gift in the struggle, an art that plays out in the journey toward mastery.

Detox Week is meant to inspire laughter and provoke small moments of crisis where they will be frustrated. As it turns out, this is one of life’s greatest bonding experiences. Detox Week becomes a moment in time where our students share experiences that we can refer to, and learn from, all year long.

Detox Week helps us establish a school culture for the year. It helps students see who they are and that they belong here, in this community. When they get to know themselves as individuals, they can start to appreciate the gifts that others bring. They can begin to see how they are connected and that their contribution matters. They begin to see that they are safe to be themselves, safe to make mistakes. So often I see educators elevate failure as a good thing…champion it even, but without laying the foundation for that kind of vulnerability, the lip service does students no good. Let’s be real; learning is an act of vulnerability because it comes with failure. To not provide genuinely safe conditions is to hinder students in their learning.

So, what does Detox Week look like practically? We start by helping our students see and appreciate their own identity. Through the books we read together, with a look at their learner profile, through metaphor, and quotes. We talk about how rainforests have a symbiotic diversity nature, and that the diversity of a rainforest is actually what makes the whole thing healthier. If you plant just one kind of plant, the rainforest would be weaker. This is the same in our classroom, and indeed life. Where there is diversity, there is life. Having a diversity of gifts and vantage points makes our classroom, school, and world healthier. We can work together. We talk about the idea of collective intelligence. We are smarter, stronger, wiser together.

Next, we put our students in teams and situations where they will be challenged. They will fail spectacularly. Then we let them take a step back, talk with their team, and iterate. They tackle it again, and again, and again. There have been tears. There have been shouts of frustration. There is always some laughter. In the end, bonds form. Kids learn that it is okay to be vulnerable. That they can succeed when they work together and listen to each other when they appreciate each other’s gifts. (You can check out other activities/ideas/inspiration we’ve had around Detox Week on Pinterest.)

The oldest two classes (6-8th grade) go on a three-night camping trip together where all of these lessons get reinforced.

We end Detox Week with Identity Day. We edu-lifted this idea from George Couros years ago! Identity Day is a day where every student prepares an exhibit that shares something about who they are. We invite everyone in: parents, teachers, students, grandparents, friends. We celebrate that each of us is unique and the part we play in our community.

When you ask Anastasis students what three things they love about our school we get the same three answers over and again:
1. You know me.
2. I have the freedom to learn here.
3. This community feels like family.

That life-changing moment has led to a school where kids are known. We start here.

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.”

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.

 

 

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!