Dreams

Summer Dreams: A glimpse into inquiry-based learning

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the lenses I offered:

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

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

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

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

Anastasis Academy inquiry immigration

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

Inquiry is immersive. Students get to experience their learning.

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

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

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

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

Embracing the Gift

As educators, we get the illustrious opportunity to engage our student’s stories in unique ways. What are we doing with that gift?

Are we helping kids to live an honest, meaningful story that is uniquely theirs?

Do we ignore their story to push someone else’s agenda? Either politician or curriculum companies?

Or, do we embrace the gift?

Do we take the time to learn their stories and act as a guide in their hero journey?

Do we sit beside as a sage, apprenticing kids in the art of learning, or do we force an agenda that was handed to us?

We all long to live a story of purpose, one that is wholly our own. Our students are no different. In the whole course of history, no one has lived in the time that we have, with the same people we have, with the experiences that we have.

We meet students in the midst of their story, what are we doing to help them tell it?

Did you have a favorite teacher? What made them your favorite? Was it the way they saw you? The way they embraced you? The way they made you feel valued and valuable? Like maybe your story was worth engaging? Like maybe you could be the hero of the story?

As k-12 educators, we get to be involved in the most formational years of life. We inform the foundation. We are those who help set the stage. In a lot of ways, we are like Q in the James Bond movies. We are those who equip for the journey and adventure.

What an amazing opportunity we have to change the world!

How are you engaging your student’s story?

On being more particular and purposeful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Learning Alive: Trusting Students to be Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?