classroom design

Unintended consequences of a system

Schools are places where all of humanity collides. When students enter school, they come just as they are. For educators, the human condition is apparent. The brokenness is apparent. Students come to school with all of their differences be they political, social economic, racial, academic, or theological. They come with all their fears, insecurities, doubts, anxieties, trauma, shame, guilt, hopes, dreams, passions, interests, excitement, and a desperation to be loved.

When students enter our classroom, they come in search of sanctuary. A place where they can be safe and feel included. To ignore this is to ignore that as educators we are in the very business of humanity and community.

Schools, and indeed our classrooms, are the very place that our society is formed. We must place the focus on the humanity in our classrooms. On who they are. On the stories that enter our space each day. To place the focus on anything other than the students is to erode their sense of self, place, and belonging. When we don’t take the time to get to know the children and stories in our classrooms, when the focus is on knowledge acquisition, on curriculum, on Pinterest worthy classrooms, on tests, on being a “blue” school, we ignore this humanity.

In the wake of the shooting in Florida, I again feel stripped bare. I again wonder when we will look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the right questions, respond in the right ways. Look at the unintended consequences of our current narrative and systems. I wonder when we will be able to change.

I’m a strong believer that everything matters. Our language, the structures we put in place, the way we speak about our values. It all matters. Students pick up on the undertones, those things we aren’t even naming aloud. Kids have an internal BS meter that goes off when our words don’t match the systems. When our words don’t match our actions. They can spot a disingenuous spirit a mile away.

I’ve read the articles and Twitter posts placing blame on the erosion of values in our country. Sometimes they point to the removal of prayer from schools. Other times the finger gets pointed at violent video games and movies. Sometimes it’s the song writers and artists that get the blame.  There is talk about this being a cultural problem.

I agree. It is a problem with our culture, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s not the lack of prayer, or video games, or musicians, or movies. It’s because we continually send the message as a society that you don’t matter. That you’re not worthy. We rarely say it aloud in this way. In our words, in our finger pointing, in our actions, in our systems this is the message that gets sent. You don’t matter.

Let’s explore some unintended messages being sent in our current system:

Subjects/tests/grades: Unintentionally share the message that only some skills are worthwhile and that if you don’t have them, there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are only worthwhile if your passions and skills match up to those we’ve decided are worthwhile.

Grades: Unintentionally send the message that your worth comes from a number. You are worthy if, and when, you perform.

Homework: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to be a learner. We have to tell you what to do and how to spend your free time. What you value isn’t as important as what we value. Downtime is not important. Rest is not important. Boredom is not important.

Behavior charts: Unintentionally sends the message that the only way to get you to comply is through public shaming. You can’t make good choices on your own.

Standards: Unintentionally sends the message that we get to determine what is important to learn. If we haven’t named it as a standard, it’s not as important or valuable.

Curriculum: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t think or explore on your own because you aren’t capable without a map where we tell you where to go and how to get there. You are a computer to be programmed.

Assigned seats: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to choose where to sit. We don’t care to get to know you, so by making you sit in the same place, we can look at the chart to know your name.

Grade Levels: Unintentionally sends the message that your age is the most important consideration when deciding who you should spend time with.

Tests and Grades: Unintentionally sends the message that competition is better than collaboration. Being the best is what matters.

Classroom space: Unintentionally sends the message that nothing is alive. That we don’t need a connection to life, or growth, or fresh air. Classrooms are enlarged cubicles. You’re learning so that you can trade one cubical, for a smaller cubical when you’ve been “trained” to our approval. This is what your life is destined to, get used to it now.

Gun laws (protection of the second amendment and all firearms): Unintentionally sends the message that we value the gun more than we value you and your safety. A gun is more worthy of our protection and activism than you are.

Armed teachers: Amplifies the message that you are not safe at school. School is not a place of sanctuary.

Increased core class time: Unintentionally sends the message that movement isn’t important, free time isn’t important, music isn’t important, art isn’t important. There is no value outside of the narrow band of academics we say have value.

We’ve created a morally corrupt society because we’ve unintentionally created a model that systemically tells kids that they don’t matter.  We look only for outward measures of success. We fail to help kids look at how to care for their inner lives. We’ve taken away the dignity of the child with so many of the systems we’ve put in place in schools.

Until we name the brokenness of the system out loud, it can’t change. Until we confess to each other, we remain unchanged and the world remains unchanged. By naming it out loud, and looking at it together, we begin to take away its power to do harm. To hide, deny, or pretend that it doesn’t exist is to allow the hurt and stripping of humanity to fester and grow. We bond over our shared brokenness. We invite change when we name the brokenness together, out loud.

We need to tell the truth. Humanity collides in all of its brokenness and beauty in our classrooms. We’re all on a journey. We’re in this together. We all give and we all receive. We all have a place. The world is interconnected, and we are connected. We belong to each other.

The unintended and underlying messages we send with our systems and policies, and language matter. They ultimately shape the ways we think about ourselves and others.




Everything Matters

I’m recognizing, this year more than ever, that everything matters in a school environment.  Everything.  When we go about “fixing” education, we have to keep this in mind.  As we dreamed up the Anastasis model, we worked from a “break everything and start over” mindset.  We wanted to step outside of all assumptions of what education is, what learning looks like and how it must be done, and start from a clean slate.  I recognize that putting aside ALL assumptions is not always possible because we aren’t able to fully even identify our assumptions sometimes.  The real goal here was to be intentional, every day, about what we do.

This morning, as I was getting dressed, I was reminded again about just how much everything matters.  The way that I dress each day may seem superficial and unimportant to the education conversation.  In my little corner of the world it matters.  In my second year of teaching I started having parents stop by my classroom and tell me that they felt like they knew me because every day their kids came home and mentioned what I was wearing.  I had no idea that my students were even paying attention.  They rarely mentioned anything to me.  I worked in an environment that had a loose dress code that had to be followed.  Essentially it was: black pants and a dressy shirt, long skirt, or dress.  I didn’t always feel comfortable in my dress code garb, to add my own style to the dress code, I went all out in my shoes.  I love shoes and color. When they are paired together I am in.

Now that I get to determine the dress code, I can really let my style shine.  I work to keep it dressy, but in my own way.  Why does this matter?  Kids are still watching and commenting on what I wear.  The older girls will especially comment on each facet of my outfit.  They are paying attention.  What can I teach through my personal style?  I can teach that NO one can define who you are except you.  I can teach that clothes can act as an extension or reflection of who you are, but they aren’t who you are.  I can help girls see that it is okay to subscribe to multiple styles…that you don’t have to wear what your friends wear to be their friend.  In my closet you will find a lot of preppy, some hipster flare, some New York chic, some beach bum sprinkled with a little of everything in between.  I like to mix it up and pair the unexpected. At the end of the day, I want what I wear to teach something every day.  I want it to say something about the superficial boxes that we put people in. I want to be able to have the conversation with girls about dressing appropriately for age and body type in a way that is respectful to them and others.  I want these kids to realize that it is okay to be who they were created to be.  I want them to be fully alive because they aren’t being limited by what someone else tells them they have to be.

I want to be intentional because it matters.  Kids are picking up on what is said and also what isn’t.

This year our student body grew.  It grew so much that we needed to find a new building.  This was a hard transition because we went from really large, open rooms to more traditional classrooms.  The kids picked up that something felt different this year.  They weren’t able to see the other classes work throughout the day, it wasn’t as easy to flow from one class to another and work with different age students.  When we asked the kids what felt different, they couldn’t always put their finger on it. Something felt different.  Environment matters.  It matters for kids and teachers.  While our teachers liked having their own space again (everything last year was temporary and had to be moved out of the classroom each week), there is something missing.  The natural conversations that happen throughout the day with other teachers when you share space, the camaraderie you feel with other staff members changes because you don’t see them quite so often.  The ability to learn from each other all the time because you share space.  It reminded me of where most of you are.  In very traditional spaces trying to do something different.

We had to “break” the classrooms we are in this year and start over.  This isn’t nearly as easy to do as it was last year!   This year that breaking means letting kids own the classroom.  It means letting them bring in their own chairs and bean bags. It means building tree houses in the classroom that can be used as learning space.  It means making the giant windows in the classrooms into writing space using dry erase markers.  It means painting murals of our learning about Rwanda on the walls.  It means being intentional about using shared space for “all-in” time where multiple classes gather and work together.  It isn’t our ideal, but it is intentionally student space.

Environment matters.  Kids pick up on these subtleties.  Is the space mine, or yours?


Last Friday we had an inservice day for our teaching staff.  We take a little bit different approach to our professional development.  We could bring in educational consultants, speakers, etc to hold a workshop day with us where we sit and listen to an “expert” tell us what we could be doing better.  Instead, we took our teachers on a cultural journey around Denver.  This is the same field trip that Jr. High students took a few weeks back.  We take field trips with students every week because we believe that there is something to learn from everyone.  We believe that learning can (and should) take place outside of a classroom just as often as it does inside a classroom.  So, we loaded up a van with all of us, made a quick stop off at Starbucks for some fuel and headed off to learn.  Anastasis is a Christian school with Christian staff members.  On our journey around Denver we stopped at a Mosque, a Hindu Temple and a Baha’i center.  Our goal: to see the world through different eyes.   To ask questions.  To learn something new together.  This was an incredible experience.  I would venture to say that I learned more on Friday about the teaching/learning process (from non-educators) than I have at any other professional development day I’ve had.  We stepped into other cultures and let ourselves be curious.  We were comfortably uncomfortable in new situations where what we knew came from a paragraph in a textbook we read in high school.  We learned. It was beautiful!  We had deep conversations, asked questions and reflected together.  At lunch, the Anastasis staff had the opportunity to reflect and discuss what we had heard.

It may not sound like much, but these shared experiences, these moments of camaraderie matter.  The staff at Anastasis comes from all backgrounds and life experiences.  We are very different and yet we truly enjoy each other’s company.  We spend time together outside of school.  We run together, see movies together, laugh together, have dinner.  A staff that is connected in this way operates better.  We values each other’s opinions.  We look for opportunities to learn from each other.  We work together.  Students pick up on this camaraderie.  They see what healthy relationships and friendships look like.  They see that you don’t have to be the same age, gender, personality to get along and enjoy others.

As it turns out everything matters.  Even the seemingly insignificant pieces of your day make an impact on the way that learning happens.  I often get asked how a teacher in a traditional setting can “break everything and start over.”  Be intentional.  Pay attention to the insignificant. Think about how environment, dress, body language, friendships are teaching students something.  Start there.  Break those.  Those small nuances teach something whether you want them to or not.  It can teach kids that they have to fit in, that there is something wrong with them if they don’t fit, that the classroom doesn’t belong to them, that the adults in their lives don’t really believe what they say about relationship.  Or, you can decide that it does matter and in doing so help them begin to see that they matter.  That they are wonderfully unique.  That the learning space belongs to them.  That they can be fully alive.

Everything matters.