students with names

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.

 

 

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?

In defense of humanity: what we value

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

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

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

All the while we lose.

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

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

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

What is it that we value?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision made?

Good.

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

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

Learning Genome Card Set

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

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

The anatomy of a Learner Profile:

 

Anatomy of a Learner Profile

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

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

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Learning Styles

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Multiple Intelligence Strengths

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Brain Dominance

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

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

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

Answer: “Nothing.”

Nothing.

Without fail!

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

What would they change?

Nothing.

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

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

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

They answer, “Nothing.”

They answer, “I like myself!”

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

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

How do we keep that?

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

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

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

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

They can do the scary things.

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

2016-04-17 13.28.36

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

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

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