Anastasis

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?

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Note to self: the joy is in the journey

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

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

There is a top.

It is glorious.

It is breath taking and awe-inspiring.

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

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

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

Glorious.

Breath-taking.

Awe inspiring.

Elation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was then.

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

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

It is about the journey that we take.

The moments of struggle.

The glorious moments of inspiration and breakthrough.

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

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

 

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

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

Can we reveal joy in the journey?

Wildly Audacious Goals and the Power of One

In 2010, I thought that technology might be the savior of education. I created the Learning Genome Project as an attempt to make it possible to personalize education for every child. This project took a detour when I realized that, in the United States, we exist within a system that has not been designed to educate the individual. This led to creating a model that honors unique individuals, a model that would make utilizing the Learning Genome Project possible. But this isn’t a post about that story. This is a post about the connections that this project has made possible.

About a month ago, I received an email through the Learning Genome Project’s website. This isn’t unusual, what was unusual was the incredibly serendipitous connection that it enabled.

Bodo Hoenen contacted me because our projects are eerily similar. Our thought process and approach is incredibly similar. But Bodo comes at the problem of education from a very different direction. Bodo recognized the vast number of refugee children (and girls in particular) who have no access to the school system of the country from which they have fled. Additionally, the host countries where these children land often don’t have the necessary resources to educate these children. The result is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million children world-wide who aren’t being educated. At the current pace, UNESCO estimates that it will take until 2086 before we are globally equipped to provide these children with quality education.

Does anyone else see the problem with this? 2086 is a long way off. There is a sense of urgency here. Children around the world cannot wait for us to get this right. They can’t wait until 2086 for this problem to be rectified. Children need us to solve this right now. Current approaches aren’t able to scale quickly enough to make a difference for children who are waiting for an education. Bodo Hoenen through Dev4x is working to change this. They have a fantastically audacious open project that goes beyond current approaches.

This is where Bodo’s vision and the Learning Genome Project overlap. Dev4X is working on a technology solution that will empower these under served children and their communities to take control of their own learning and create better lives for themselves.

Dev4X was founded on the belief that this global challenge can be solved while these children are still young by globally sourcing solutions and open collaboration.

At Anastasis, our students are currently working on an inquiry block, “Power of One.” The kids are exploring change makers, and looking into what it means to be a change maker. They are also investigating ways that they can enact change. They are recognizing their own Power of One.

I cannot say enough about the incredible students at Anastasis. These are kids who live their learning every day. We’ve challenged the kids during this inquiry block. Memorize one, give one, pray for one, serve one. The idea is to make one small change that can actually become a BIG thing. In the first week of this inquiry block, a group of three students came to me and asked if they could stay in for recess. “Mrs. Tenkely, we were talking during the morning walk and realized that we each have $100. We were talking about what we were going to use our money for and realized that we don’t really have anything we really need. So then we thought that maybe we could pool our money and buy a Sphero robot to do random acts of kindness for others. But then we remembered that we have 3 Spheros at school and realized that you would let us use them. So we were wondering if we could use our money to buy little things to hide around the school for other kids as a random act of kindness. Can we stay in for recess and hide things for kids with notes?” I am telling you, AMAZING students!

Power of One

Each of our classes has a charitable organization that they pour into for the year. One of our intermediate classes is connected with a food bank run by adults with special needs called Stepping Stones. Our students are helping to put together boxes of food for Thanksgiving. They’ve agreed to help come up with ideas to raise money for these boxes. The kids split into groups as part of their inquiry block to think about ways that they could raise money. Last week, two girls came into the office to propose their idea: “We were wondering if we could offer horse rides at school to raise money for Stepping Stones?” These girls created a waiver to sign, proposed the idea to the owner of the building we lease space from, created fliers, and organized for horses to be at school today. In 2 hours, these girls raised $400 giving horse rides at school. They organized everything themselves. Change makers!

What does this have to do with Dev4X? Anastasis students are now working on the part they can play in education for kids around the world. They are considering how they can be a part of Bodo’s wildly audacious goal of making education a reality for children all over the world. Students will be considering how they can add to the conversation, and how they can help raise some money to put into the project.

We would like to challenge other schools to do the same. What can you do to raise some money to make education a reality for children everywhere? There are 98,817 public schools in the United States, what would happen if each of them raised $100? Could we enact change for education world-wide that would have incredible implications for our own educational model? Could it be that children are the key to education reform world-wide? Are they the power of one?

Dev4X has a live Indiegogo Campaign. This is an opportunity to transform education, an opportunity to “be the change you want to see in the world.” (Gandhi) What can your students do to make a change in the world? How can you empower your students?

Bodo Hoenen is our closing keynote at the 5Sigma Edu Conference in February. You will not want to miss seeing Bodo live, and experiencing the model of education that makes the Power of One stories above possible. Early bird registration ends this week! Sign up now!

School is so much more than learning all the right things

The first question that I get asked when people find out that I’ve started a school: what makes Anastasis Academy different? And this is a tricky one to answer, because the truth is EVERYTHING makes us different. It’s hard to describe something that no one has seen before, so you begin to relate it with ideas and concepts that people are familiar with. The more I’ve talked about Anastasis, the more I’ve begun to really recognize what it is at the heart that makes us so different. It is our starting point and driving force: students-with-names.

That may seem like a strange comment to make, “students-with-names,” because, of course they have names! But in education, we make a lot of decisions without these specific students-with-names in mind. We make decisions for students as if they are a homogeneous group, or worse, a number.

As if they don’t have special interests/passions/gifts.

As if they don’t have something unique that the world needs.

At Anastasis Academy, we see the potential of students-with-names and help them believe that they are capable of realizing that potential. That it is worth the risk of being fully alive. That they can be vulnerable in community.

When we talk about education, too often the focus is on learning all the right things, equipping kids with the right content and answers. But the truth is, a great school is about so much more than learning all the right things. A great school is about connecting humanity. It is about finding the educators who can draw students out, who can foster humanity and connection. Who see potential and help others see it, too. Who help kids embrace their worth and value.

Because we start from this place, from students-with-names, every other decision we make has to honor that.

So we can’t think about curriculum as a one-size-fits all.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t assess in a way that minimizes the individual and the learning journey that is happening.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t have large class sizes that prohibit us from getting to know the stories of students.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t pretend that worksheets, tests, and grades are what learning is about.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t let technology be the teacher.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t have restrictive classroom space.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t rely on typical professional development to prepare teachers.

Because, students (and teachers)-with-names.

When your goal is honoring the humanity, EVERYTHING else must shift to help meet that goal. Everything must be adjusted outside of the assumptions we make as adults about what education “should” look like.

Last week, I asked every Anastasis teacher to come to school on Tuesday with sub plans with one caveat- don’t “dumb it down” for the sub! Just continue on with whatever you were doing. That was all of the information I shared. On Tuesday morning, we all met in the office. I had slips of paper with every class name on it. Each teacher chose a name. This was to be their class for the morning.

Teacher Swap!

My goal was a simple one, build community and empathy among the staff. If you’ve met the staff at Anastasis, you may have wondered at this goal (these are the most amazing people who have incredible empathy and we have a pretty tight community). Something different happens when you are in a classroom that isn’t yours, teaching students you don’t normally teach. You begin to see things through new lenses, different perspectives. You begin to problem solve differently. We had a Jr. High teacher with our 2nd-3rd grade, our 4th-6th teacher with our kindergarten. Teachers who normally teach young students, teaching some of the oldest. It was outstanding!

During our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about the successes and challenges that were faced. We remembered what it is like to be a “new” teacher again, the fish-out-of-water feeling that comes from having a loose inquiry plan with a different age group. It revealed the way that each class ladders up and prepares these students-with-names for the next part of their learning journey. It reminded us not to set boundaries and expectations too low; these kids are capable of greatness! It revealed to the teachers of the older students why the teachers of the younger students are ready for recess at 10:00am on the button. :)

In a few weeks, teachers will begin to go into each other’s classrooms as an observer. My hope is, that the time spent teaching in each other’s classes will provide them with greater insight and more thoughtful observation.

In February, we invite you to come visit us. Join us to see first hand how a focus on students-with-names impacts everything that we do (including our approach to conference PD!)  The 5Sigma Education Conference is an opportunity for you to see first hand what makes Anastasis such a different learning environment. On February 19th, our students will tour you through our building, they’ll walk you through classes and talk to you about their learning experiences. We have two incredible keynotes by equally incredible people. Angela Maiers is our opening keynote. If you aren’t familiar with Angela’s work, I encourage you to take a look at her here, and learn why she is the perfect person to kick off our “students-with-names” focused conference. Bodo Hoenen is our closing keynote. Bodo has a passion for making individualized learning possible for children who have been largely forgotten.  In between those keynotes, will be sessions, panels, featured speakers, conversations, and plenty of inspiration. On February 21st we’ll take a field trip together.

This is our second 5Sigma Education Conference, if you were at the first, you know what a powerful weekend this is. If you weren’t with us last year, you will not want to miss out this year! Check out what last year’s attendees had to say about the weekend here.

Register today and take advantage of early-bird pricing!

Have something that needs to be added to our conversations? The call for proposals is still open! Click on the link above and head over to the “Propose a Session” tab.

Transforming education through great accidents

In 2009, I left teaching. I didn’t do it because I was fed up with the system, or because I didn’t like my job. Quite the opposite. I really loved being a computer teacher. I loved the freedom of writing my own curriculum every day, and getting to know my students. I had a great time helping other teachers learn how to use technology, and coming up with ideas for how they could integrate it into their classrooms. In 2009, I left teaching for health reasons. I have auto immune disorders (Rheumatoid Arthritis and Raynaud’s Syndrome) and in 2009, my rheumatologist recommended that I take a year off to see if my body would stop attacking itself. Get away from the germs the wreak havoc on the system.

So, that is what I did. I took a year off, fully anticipating that this little experiment would not work and that I would be back in the classroom by 2010.

In 2008 (I know, I’m doing this in the wrong order!), I was teaching my students how to build a website using Wix. This is a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) platform, but also allowed for some basic HTML embedding and tweaking. I was demonstrating for students how they could embed a Google Map onto their websites and asked the question, “if I wanted to put a map of the capital of the United States on my website, what would I need to type in?” Blank. Stares.

To clarify, these were 10 and 11-year-old students who are living IN the United States of America. I tried again, “You guys! The capital of the United States, you know, the country we live in?” At this point a few hands raised. “New York?” “San Francisco?” This was one of those face-palm teacher moments. In the interest of time, I gave them the answer. This scenario happened with 2 more classes. Out of 74 fifth grade students, not one of them knew the capital of their own country!!! At this point I started to panic a little. How could our social studies curriculum fail to mention the capital of the United States? I decided that I was going to take all of the curriculum home over the summer and create supplemental guides using technology to help teach what wasn’t in the curriculum. I didn’t stop at social studies, I took the reading, writing, math, and science curriculum home for kindergarten through fifth grade. The back of my MDX filled, I had a goal: to leverage technology to solve this problem.

As I poured over pages and pages of curriculum, one thing became abundantly clear…this was not a problem with the curriculum. At least not in the way I had assumed. It was all there. The kids had even done worksheets and taken tests on the information! When it came time to retrieve the information for a practical purpose, they couldn’t do it. Analyzing the curriculum, I could see why. The way that these skills were being taught was not going to reach my students. I knew these kids. I had taught them for years. As I looked at what the curriculum offered as “learning” I knew that it wouldn’t work for the majority of the students I saw each week in my computer lab. These are brilliant kids, but the only thing that the curriculum required of them was that they look at something, and then regurgitate what they had seen right back on paper. None of it ever had to take long-term residence in the brain. It went directly from the eyes to the hand. My pursuit of a technology supplement guide took on a new goal: take what was in the curriculum, and use technology to bring the learning to life. I had the added benefit of knowing each of the kids I was writing this for. I had their faces in my mind as I wrote these technology guides. I could picture their excitement over learning with what I was pulling together.

Fast forward again to 2009. I hadn’t finished the tech guides, so I was hired as a consultant to finish them for the remainder of the curriculum. I picked up a few other consulting gigs at other schools in the area. As I went through their curriculum I realized that this wasn’t a localized problem. This was a one-size-fits-all problem. At the end of the day, the real trouble was that curriculum isn’t designed for the individual, but for the masses. And in creating for the masses, it completely forgot its goal of teaching students. Who are individuals.

One day as I was working on these technology supplement guides and flipping through curriculum, a song came on Pandora (internet radio) that I had never heard before. I frantically looked for a sticky note to jot down the name of the artist. I stopped for a minute after I got the artist’s name down (Zee Avi, for those who are interested), and had a true geek out moment over how far technology had come. I marveled at the way that technology was so advanced that it could predict what music I would like, all based on one piece of information. It felt like a terribly intimate thing for technology to be able to do (particularly because at the time, I had no idea how the background technology worked!). In the midst of my geeking out, I had a thought: what if curriculum worked more like Pandora? What if we could input one piece of information about a student, and have technology predict ways they might like to learn? I could not shake this idea, and Tweeted it out. My PLN instantly retweeted that thought. I emailed an app developer in Australia that I had been working with and asked if technology was advanced enough to do something like that with curriculum. His response was somewhere along the lines of, “if you can think it up, anything is possible.” I couldn’t let the idea go, so this app developer pointed me toward Balsamiq and told me to learn what I could about how Pandora worked and then prototype my idea. Since I had all the time in the world on my hands, I did exactly that. Pandora called itself the music genome project, based on the human genome project. Essentially, it identifies attributes of music (over 400 of them) and tags each piece of music with those attributes. A map of music. Clearly learning has attributes, so I set out naming those, planning the way that learning could be broken down into the minutia so that an algorithm could identify the perfect resource for a student. At this point I had convinced myself that technology would be the savior of education. All we need is to better individualize for students! Problem solved! Clearly I’m a genius! 😉

Only, the more that I talked to teachers, the more I talked with administrators, the more I looked for investors, the more that I examined the system, the more I realized…education isn’t quite ready for this genius.

The trouble is, we have a one-size-fits-all system. We have classes of 25+ students. We have teachers who are overworked and underpaid. We have a limited amount of time. We have limited budgets. The idea of mass education, in some ways, locks us into the one-size-fits-all. Standards and testing have become hallmarks of education. I started to recognize that even if I get the Learning Genome Project built, I still have to find a way for teachers to use it for students. With the current setup, that would mean the very top students in a class, those considered ‘gifted,’ and the very bottom of the class, those considered ‘low,’ would get to use it. The vast majority of students, those in the middle of the bell curve, would never get the individualized plan. Yet, they deserved it just as much.

This is where the Learning Genome Project took a small (read: enormous) detour. In order for this technology to be used to create a learning map for every student, a new system was needed. I began to consider what type of learning model this type of technology would be best utilized in. I couldn’t find a fit. Sadly, I couldn’t find anything that recognized that every student was a unique individual. One with unique learning patterns. Unique gifts. A unique worldview. I couldn’t find anything that recognized students with names. Everything was geared toward “students,” as if that one word can capture the genius of the individuals it claims. We needed a new system. One that honored humanity. That honored the students with names. I began to dream about what such a school would look like. I talked with other brilliant educators about what that would be like. The result: a new school. A new school model. A brand new way of approaching learning: I started a k-8 school, Anastasis Academy.

I began this journey believing that technology was going to solve the problems of education, I suppose that is a natural path for someone so saturated in current educational technology. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the problem wasn’t one that technology, like the Learning Genome Project, could solve but rather, one that technology could support. At the heart of what isn’t working is a system. A system that sees “students,” and not students with names. A system aimed at teaching the masses in a way that ends up minimizing humanity. Minimizing what makes us unique. Minimizing the genius that each of us alone brings to the world. I set out to create technology that would revolutionize learning, and instead detoured to the real game changer: a model that recognizes the individual, that honors it. Beginning from this place, students with names, learning can grow. Technology that supports that learning can grow.

The Learning Genome Project has taken a 5 year back seat, not because it isn’t important. Not because it can’t work. It has taken a back seat because first we need to recognize the humanity. When we really see the kids with names, the technology can support. It can help us reach each of those unique individuals. It can transform.

Anastasis Academy has been the single greatest “accident” of my life. In many ways I stumbled into starting a school. Seeing the way everything grows out of ‘students with names,’ the humanity, I’m able to again look at the Learning Genome Project with new eyes. In and of itself, the Learning Genome  Project (technology) won’t be the savior of education. Coupled with a model that honors humanity, it is unstoppable. I know this to be true. I’ve had the luxury of 5 years in Anastasis Academy. I’ve seen students come alive. I’ve seen them #standagain in who they are as learners, in who they are as the unique individuals they were created to be. If you’d like to see Anastasis Academy first hand, I hope you will join us for our education conference, 5Sigma. If you were a supporter of my Indiegogo campaign, I’d like to waive your conference fee! Just email me for a special code! I’d love for you to be my guest!

Last week, I had the great privilege of virtually meeting Bodo Hoenen. We share an eerily similar vision, come at from very different angles. Bodo is launching his own Indiegogo campaign. It is one that I will support because I so strongly believe that the world needs this. Bodo will be our closing keynote at 5Sigma Edu Conference. I cannot wait! I’m interested in partnering with those who share the vision. In those who know that we have to do better for kids now. Please help us BLOW UP the Internet with a new message about education reform. One about students with names. Individuals who are uniquely gifted and set apart to do something important in the world. If you’ve taught for any amount of time, you know that you are among genius waiting to be unleashed! It is time to empower kids. It is time to stop limiting with labels. It is time to stand again.

Follow Anastasis Students in the upcoming weeks as they work to transform education. As we begin our new inquiry unit, students are exploring the power of one. They are learning that they have an unique voice and worldview. They have the power to transform. I hope you’ll join us!

Hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and again to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.”

-Bertrand Russell

This. This quote is one of my new very favorite quotes ever! This is where innovation lives. In the question marks.

Too often in education, we talk about innovation as if it is something that we’ve created and something that can be owned. We talk about innovation in steps and processes and we make it into something it isn’t. And so when we talk about education reform, the conversation gets centered on the wrong things: rigor, standards, tests, Race to the Top!, No Child Left Behind!, technology, better teachers, more tests. Things that end up actually adding layers between us and what we fight for: students. But educational innovation doesn’t live in any of these.

Innovation is a shift in mindset. It is hanging the question mark on things taken for granted.

5 years ago, I started a school fueled by questions. Surrounded by an incredible team, we search for the question marks on those things that we take for granted. In the process, we’ve found that questions are the catalyst of innovation. Questions have the unique ability to disrupt the status quo and force us to think differently. This is important for our students, we believe that this world needs citizens who are self-learners, who are creative and resourceful, and who can adapt and adjust to change. This is also important for us as educators. We need the questions. In a system that seems to value the answer above all, I’m proud to say that Anastasis teachers are those who value the questions. Innovation seems to thrive in this environment of “what if?”. Answers end the process of inquiry, yet this is what our schools have largely been built on.

At Anastasis we are constantly asking, now that we know-what is possible now? We live for those ‘what if?’ moments! These ‘what if?’ moments are our slow hunches that give rise to something bigger. We go through the process of asking: Why? (Why is this the way it it?), What if? (What if it were different?), How? (How could it be different?), what solutions might there be?.

Our assessment at Anastasis is testament to this process of questioning.

Why? Why does assessment look like it does? Why do we judge students on a moment of time? Why have we decided that these things that we assess are the MOST important things? Why are we okay with assessing students this way? Why do stakeholders accept this as a picture of a child?

What if? What if assessment wasn’t based on moments in time? What if we looked at the whole child? What if we changed the guidelines? What if assessment helped students grow? What if assessment could reveal to stakeholders where students are in their learning journey? What if report cards were more comprehensive? What if assessment wasn’t the end point?

How? How do we show stakeholders that a student is more than the few data points we collect? How do we use assessment for growth? How do we determine what should be assessed? How should a student who leaves our school look? How do we know if a student is ‘succeeding’? How will we share with other schools? How could we offer something meaningful?

What solutions can we come up with? What do we want students to leave us to look? What are the words we want to describe them? What can we do to reveal learning journey and forward progress? What do we do to help others understand the bigger picture? What do we do to help students understand the bigger picture?

When we went through this process as a staff at Anastasis, we began with the end in mind. What do we want students to look like on leaving our school? You know what never came up? Scores. Grades. Specific content knowledge that would deem a child ‘educated.’ Instead we came up with words like: inquirer, problem solver, risk-taker, communicator, compassionate, responsible, thinker, mathematician, scientist, self-aware, writer, reader, creator, connector, historian, geographer, respectful, open-minded, service-minded, healthy, reflective, resourceful, responsible, innovative, researcher, discerner, aware, logical.


These words are vastly different from what we generally see listed on a report card. Different from what we generally value (according to what we measure).

This was the launching point for our assessment system. The questions led to innovation.

Our report card looks like this:

UpGrade Anastasis Academy Report Card

We know it looks different, it should. It started with a question mark. It evolves every year.

Innovation doesn’t come as the result of declaring that innovation is needed and putting a plan in place to reach a predetermined outcome. Innovation comes in hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted.

And then- two words full of possiblity

At Anastasis Academy, we have a learning environment that is enviable. Seriously, educators everywhere long to do what we do every day. If kids knew that this option of schooling existed, they would demand it.

And yet, we still have bad days. We get tired. Social struggles still exist. We still have moments when we take it for granted, or listen to rumors, or feel bad about ourselves, or just wish for a day that includes outdoor recess. You know why? Because we are still human.

While we do a lot of things at Anastasis that feel like we’ve created a utopia, it is still very much a place of humanity. A place where sometimes we are tired, or feel distracted by what is happening outside of school, or just want to sit in the sunshine after weeks of gloom.

One thing we don’t give enough grace for in schools is those moments when it doesn’t feel like utopia. We are human. Not every day will be perfect for everyone in class.

That’s okay.

It’s part of being human.

It’s authentic and it’s real life.

Though I believe we have a remarkable place to learn every single day, as humans there are times when it just won’t be that for us. This is as true for teachers and staff as it is for students.

Wonder Retreat, Boulder

Last weekend I had the incredible privilege of joining amazing visionaries, mentors, designers, and learners at the Wonder Retreat in Boulder. It was deeply restorative. It was inspiring. It was good to be intentional about being away from work with the only focus to make connections.

I can’t describe what an awesome feeling it is to be with people who make you think about possibility. Who will dream with you. Who inspire and remind you that stunning things are happening all over the world. To be surrounded by people who give hope. It is good to remember that we aren’t alone. It’s good to laugh, and try new things (Picklebacks are not my jam), and make new friends.

I’m still very much processing the immenseness of what happened last weekend. There was little agenda, no expected take-away. It was a gathering about nothing…and everything. It reminded me of the need for connection, the need to get away for perspective, the need for possibility.

It makes me wonder how we can offer this for our students and teachers in those moments when we feel extra human.

And. Then. Two words that, when put together, are full of promise. “I was feeling down AND THEN, my coworker came in and made me laugh.”  “I felt like no one liked me because I was sitting alone at lunch AND THEN, Camryn came and sat by me.” “I was feeling extra human AND THEN, I joined 23 remarkable people for a retreat in Boulder.” How can we give each other the AND THEN shift when it doesn’t feel like utopia? (No really, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below!)

To my new Wonder friends…thank you for being an AND THEN for me!

Wonder Retreat Boulder