community

Building Student Agency with Card Games and Detox Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’ll provide the favorable environment, you bring the flourish #5sigma

2018 is almost here (or if you live opposite the world from me…it may well be here!). What decisions are you making today that will amplify what is possible in 2018?

Every year I choose a word. An intention for the year. Something to remind me of my greatest hopes and purposes for the year. Do you do that, too?

The word that leapt out to me for 2018 is FLOURISH.

FLOURISH: 1. to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment. 2. a bold or extravagant gesture or action.

Don’t you just love that? To grow vigorously…especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.

Anastasis Academy has become “a particularly favorable environment” and now for some intention: to flourish!

Flourish reminds me that I have more. More to contribute to the changing landscape of education. More to give to the students whose lives we impact with our important work. But flourishing is bigger. Flourishing is extravagant. It’s vigorous. It’s more.

I could not be more thrilled to announce the 4th annual 5Sigma Education Conference and the INCREDIBLE line up that we have. 5Sigma will help you consider how you can push beyond current constraints and truly see what is possible in education. It’s an invitation to flourish.

The real power of 5Sigma is in helping you see what is possible and then connecting you to other incredible educators who are doing important work. We’ll provide the favorable environment, your job is to flourish.

If you’re ready to transform your classroom (or school) in meaningful and important ways, we’d like to help you do that.

What will it take to flourish in 2018? It’s not going to happen by doing the same things in 2017. Join us in February and bring on the flourishing! We can’t wait to meet you!

 

***If you want to bring a group to 5Sigma, contact me and I’ll see how I can help you out.

**** Comment below with your word of 2018 to be entered for a free registration to 5Sigma EduCon!

How to make magic: create space

So often the magic at Anastasis happens in the gaps. In those moments where you don’t expect anything big or important. The magic happens when we create space.

Every Wednesday we have a late start for students. They come an hour later than usual, teachers show up at the normal time. During this time we eat breakfast together, we talk about the silly sitcoms we watched together (virtually) the night before, we review upcoming events. There isn’t a “real” agenda. This is the time where we share stories, talk about what brilliant (or not-so-brilliant) things that our students are doing, talk about the books we are reading, the videos we are watching. Sometimes we spend time writing happy emails/texts/notes to our students and our families. Basically, we just have space every week where magic moments can happen. We can go weeks without any major magic moments where we are all collaborating, and excited, and things are happening. Sometimes we are dragging. Sometimes we just need to gripe about cars being stolen, and illness, and the frustrations that come with running a school. But sometimes, sometimes magic happens.

A few weeks ago, we were talking about our Capstone students. Lance was sharing about the work they are doing with refugees, and how the girls were hoping to put on an event to raise awareness about refugees and raise some money for different organizations. He talked about the speakers that they were reaching out to and what they were hoping to see out of the night. He talked about the spoken word poem that the girls were writing to present during their event. In the midst of this, Michelle mentioned an amazing TED talk by Amal Kassir who comes from a Syrian refugee family, “and I think she is in Denver.” She sent us all Amal’s spoken word. Incredible!!

Lance and the girls reached out to Amal to find out if she might be available as a speaker during the refugee event. Unfortunately she wasn’t. She was to be receiving an award for her work the same evening. At Anastasis, we aren’t great at taking ‘no’ for an answer, so Lance asked if she might be available to come and talk to all of our students during a morning Metanoia (our daily community gathering/devotion time). She agreed! MAGIC.

Amal at Metanoia

Her presence, her grace, her thoughtfulness.

Here was the daughter of Syrian refugees, proudly wearing her head scarf, a Muslim sharing her worldview with our Christian community during a devotion time. Amal began her talk with our students by singing a hymn that Elvis sang, instantly putting our community at ease. Then she shared her gift of spoken word. She shared poetry about refugees, about feeling like a stranger in your own land, about war, about the struggle we all face as humans. It was absolutely beautiful and perfect. She hugged each and every one of our students and took fake selfies with them. Then she stayed to listen and give advice to our Capstone students as they shared the spoken word they would perform during their refugee event. The most impactful for our Capstone Girls, “remember that you aren’t there to share your voice, you are there to be the voice for those who don’t have one.” This meant the absolute world to these girls who have a new idol. Amal impacted our entire community in amazing ways. Every child walked away in awe, knowing more about refugees, about the human struggle, about war and spirit.

In awe of Amal Kassir

Fake selfies with Amal Kassir

Amal Kassir listens to Anastasis spoken word

Magic.

Magic because we created space. We abandoned the idea that every week has to have a structured agenda and gave ourselves space to share and dream together.

 

Do you want to form an alliance with me?

In March of 2010, I wrote a blog post that ended up connecting me and amplifying good in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, the title of that post: Do you want-to form an alliance-with me? (Best when spoken like Dwight’s character in the TV show the Office…American version).

https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/embed/10a0aa37-f334-436c-9e70-eaec5c97266e?autoplay=false  Anyway, it was this blog post that originally showed me the power of connection. This bloggers alliance introduced me to some of my very best education friends around the world. The alliance is the reason I fell in love with inquiry, the reason that I was able to see education from new vantage points. It made 2010 an exceptional year of growth and learning. Today, I invite you to start a new alliance with me, allow me to explain below (Originally posted on KT’s Blog):

 

SMLXL

It was 2010, when I first saw “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson on YouTube. Soon after, I’d read his book by the same title. For me, this video will always be titled “When Hunches Collide,” because it is this idea that has so resonated with me. It was this moment of pivot when I recognized the power of collective intelligence. In school we learn about a lot of incredible characters in history. Inventors, explorers, accidental geniuses. All of their stories are told as if they are in a vacuum. They seem super human, like they possess something spectacular, and rare. With this video was the recognition that nothing happens in isolation, rather, it is when ideas have the opportunity to collide with other ideas that big things happen. Innovation isn’t about solo genius, it’s about collective genius.
I saw this first hand following this blog post “When Hunches Collide.” Inviting others to dream with me, voicing the impossible suddenly made it possible. Collisions started happening regularly and suddenly it felt like everything was connecting. Starting a school wasn’t something that I thought I would do. I didn’t have the resources, the experience, the courage. But when you put your ideas out there, when you invite the collision of ideas, things suddenly feel more doable. A tribe rallies, makes you believe in impossible things. A year after writing this post about hunches colliding, I was months into running a school that I founded. I was seeing my dream realized. I was seeing that innovation is actually collective problem solving with those in my tribe adding their unique experience and point of view. Injecting honesty into my dreaming.
In the day-to-day of running a school, things become much more practical, much more one-foot-in-front-of-another. I find myself doing the things that must be done and my dreaming becomes much more localized. In the summer months, I have a different cadence to my days. My to-do list is as long as ever, but the different pace gives me the room to let my mind wander, read the book that I’ve been inching through at a better pace. Each year, I start a new notebook. A “common place” book where I write down quotes I come across that I want to remember, take notes on the books I am reading, and let my mind wander. These notebooks are always at the ready. As I was writing some quotes and thoughts in this year’s notebook, it struck me that I don’t often go back through the notebooks and re-read my thoughts. I guess I just like knowing they are there if I need them. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading through my notebooks from the last 6 years (back to the start of Anastasis). All of those things that inspired me along the way were once again packing a powerful punch. How could I have captured all of this and not gone back to remember?!
It was through this process that the idea for KT’s Place was born. I needed to unleash some of these ideas, give them space where the hunches that I was having could collide. I wanted a place where I could extend the invitation to solve problems together. A place where your gifts, and talents, and worldview could collide with mine and others. A place where I remember that I shouldn’t expect to do any of this in a vacuum. Know that this is a place of willful naivete. This is a place where I am choosing to close my eyes to the thought that these dreams are impossible. I’m impatient to see dreams realized (mine and yours!). When we work together, possibility exists that did not exist before. That is powerful!
I believe that:
  • We are better/stronger/braver together than apart.
  • We all have unique gifts, experiences, and worldview that offer important perspective and nuance when they come together.
  • We can work together to spread and amplify good.
  • People who know who they are and living ‘in flow’ are the happiest and most fulfilled in life.
  • Sharing > Hoarding/Hiding
  • We should have a bias toward action.
  • My skills are limited.
  • More beauty and good should exist in our world.
  • We are better served sharing ideas than protecting them.

 

There is nothing really special about KT’s Place, I’m just setting the stage where we can unleash our collective genius around common problems. So, there you go. That is what this site is all about, sharing crazy ideas and giving them a public place where they can collide with your genius. I’ll start blogging here about each of the projects listed, give you the back story to the idea, the inspiration that is spurring me on along the way. Each will come with an invitation for you, what do you have to contribute? Who might you know that I should know? You certainly don’t have to wait for these posts to add your 2cents, this is a place where you can contribute ALL the time!
Additionally, if KT’s Place, or one of my hunches has inspired something you are working on, or you have a totally new hunch of your own that you would like to open to collisions, let me know and I’ll share it on the “Fellow Dreamers” page.
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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!

Knowing Kids As Well As We Know Wine

By now, I’m sure you’ve been inundated with news and social media stories about ninth grade student Ahmed Mohammed who was arrested when he brought a “hoax bomb” to school. As it turns out the “hoax bomb” was nothing more than a homemade digital clock that the 14 year old created and brought to share.

This story has raised all sorts of questions about racism and religious persecution, and those are really important discussions that should be talked about and considered. But, for me, the conversation has to be bigger than just race and religion. The truth is, this is a systemic issue that impacts all students and the question that keeps coming to my mind is: How is it that the teachers in MacArthur High School, and it’s administration, know so little about Ahmed and WHO he is? Why didn’t they know that he has this passion for engineering, robotics and electronics? Why didn’t his English teacher know him beyond the color of his skin and his religion? Because if anyone in the building had taken the time to really get to know Ahmed, they would know that this is a brilliant student who is excited about learning. They might know that he had been working on projects like this, and that he would want to share his excitement of accomplishment with his teachers. They might not have made such a ridiculous judgement call based on race and religion because they would know who he is.  When Ahmed showed his engineering teacher the homemade clock, the advice that was given was to hide it away and not to show other staff. Wait, what?! (If a student brought something like that to me, my advice would be to share it with all of his teachers and other students!) Why would we tell students, in a SCHOOL, to hide away an accomplishment like that? Ahmed did as he was told and kept his clock in his backpack, that worked well until an alarm went off in English class. When Ahmed showed the clock to his English teacher, it was followed by a threat of expulsion and interrogation by five police officers and handcuffs.

Students have names, and with those names stories. Consider the amount of time that parents consider what they are going to name their newborn. There is anticipation and excitement for this new person that they’ll soon meet. And each of the names being considered have a story. Sometimes it is a family name that they want to carry on because of the stories that come with the name, the fond memories, the accomplishment. Sometimes the name is a desire for parents to declare something new and unique. Sometimes the names come from a special place visited, or based on a memory. Names matter because they come with rich history and story and promise. Each one of the names is as unique as the student who carries the name, because it comes with that history and story. By the time that we meet that student as an educator, the name carries additional history of their individual experiences, personality, struggles, and accomplishments.

It seems that we know the weight of names in other facets of life. Consider the sommelier who not only knows the names of wines, but also the varietal of grapes, the climate they were grown in, the different hints and notes of flavors, the aging process, the vintner who made the wine, the bottling process, and hundreds of other idiosyncrasies of the particular wine. There are coffee masters who, by taste, can tell you what region of the world the coffee hales from, what that region is known for, how the coffee was roasted, and the hints of flavor that a particular bean has. Why don’t we have more education masters who know students?

In education, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve taken incredible individuals, students with names, and we’ve created a system where we see them as the same. We rank them and tell them their worth through test scores, we purchase boxed curriculum that exposes them all to the exact same material, in the same way, on the same day. We set the exact same standards for all of them. When they enter our classrooms we have no time to KNOW them, because the focus isn’t on the student with a name and a story, the focus is on external goals. Are they going to pass the test? Are they going to go to graduate? Are they going to make us look good when we compare ourselves with another country’s scores?

When they come to us with cool clocks that they’ve learned to program, we don’t know WHO they are well enough to celebrate that accomplishment with them. Instead we leap to conclusions based on assumptions, and misinformation, and fear.

The thing that I am most proud of at Anastasis Academy is that we know our students names, and the stories that go with those names. We take the time as a staff to get to know EVERY child in the building (it helps that we have a small population, but it is also one of the reasons we have a small population). Knowing our students colors everything that we do. It transforms the way we use classroom space, the way we assess, the way we interact as a community, the way we make decisions about choosing resources and learning excursions, the way that we do school. When kids are known, they bring their passions to school. Teachers don’t panic when a child brings their knife collection that their grandfather left them, because we know the story and can help the child share that story with others in a way that is appropriate. We can help students “stand again” (the literal translation of Anastasis) in who they are as learners, and the unique gifts/talents/perspective that they add to the world.

Ahmed’s story reminds me of all the ways that we’ve lost the humanity in education. When humanity is stripped away and the focus is not on the students with names and stories, fear and panic drive our decisions. Fear and panic are generally related to a lack of knowledge, so we make assumptions and fill in our own blanks. Pretty soon we have creative, innovative, amazing students who look more like robots. As a society, we’ve got to stop being okay with students as numbers. To truly transform education, we’ve got to focus on the humanity, knowing the students with names and stories. We have to know kids (at least) as well as well as we know wine.

Learning is vulnerable, community needed #edreform

Community is important. I would argue the MOST important.

And yet, when reformers talk about how to make education better, community never even enters the conversation. Standards (to make us equitable), testing (to make sure we are hitting the mark), technology (will solve all of our problems!), rigor (because, don’t we all want to describe learning as rigid and unmoving?!).

We are just beginning year 5 at Anastasis Academy. Magic. Lightening in a bottle. I wish everyone could see what happens here (incidentally you can come to our February conference for a peek). It is difficult to put into words the incredible moments that have become our “normal.” As I reflect on what it is that makes our school so different, I’m increasingly convinced that it isn’t the place, it’s not the technology we have access to, it isn’t that we’ve ditched tests/grades/curriculum. No, what makes this place incredible is the community. It is Who We Are (our first inquiry block every year). It is detox week. It is the way that we intentionally focus on building community first. It is the way we work so hard to help our students (and teachers) understand who they are.

Each of our students (and yours, too) is unique. They have unique gifts and talents. Strengths and weaknesses. Fears. When we talk about education, we must start here.

Learning is vulnerable. It puts us in a place of true vulnerability, we don’t know, we are explorers. We may look foolish at times. Because learning is such a state of vulnerability, we must have strong community in order for learning to thrive.

Too often, education has been focused on what a student isn’t.

They aren’t a strong reader.

They aren’t good at math.

They struggle with writing.

They don’t measure up.

When we start with Who We Are, we invite students to change that focus. We invite students to see all that they offer. The things that make them AWESOME!

This week I’ve again been reminded about how incredible Anastasis teachers are at building community. In one of our intermediate classes, students were “speed friending.” This is an exercise where students pair up and have 2 minutes to talk with each other. The only rule: no small talk. They aren’t allowed to talk about things like favorite color, food, where they live, etc. I had the privilege of walking in on the middle of this Speed Friending exercise. Boys and girls matched up for 2 minutes before they move on to the next student. Every single group was having really awesome conversations. Kids were animated. Smiling. Learning about each other. There was a lot of laughter and exclamations of “me too!” Their teacher joined in as well.

In the class next door, a jr. high class, community was being built by sharing ‘war’ stories. “Everyone has to tell a story about how they got a scar…or when there was a LOT of blood. Who wants to go first?” Students sit in a circle and hands instantly shoot up. Stories that begin, “this one time…” get shared. It’s like being around a campfire at happy hour (minus the fire and drinks). Everyone participates, they all ooh and aww over each other’s stories. Each new story reminds the others of another “this one time…”. The caveat: they are only allowed to share one story. “We don’t have time! Guess you’ll have to tell that story during lunch!” Instant camaraderie. Community built.

Today, day 2, I stopped by the Jr. High classroom. They’ve just started into A Wrinkle in Time. Soon, they hit the word “tesseract.” None of them knew what it was or had a good guess about what it could be. Their teacher stopped and said, “all right, we are going to the prototype lab. You’re going to get in teams and build a tesseract, you can do some research, but then your goal is to build a model that you can use to explain it to the rest of the class. You’ll also come up with a hypothesis about what is going to happen in the book. When you’re finished, you’ll share with the class.”

The kids researched and got to work building. Working together to solve a problem. Looking through materials and options and coming up with BRILLIANCE! They had a limited amount of time, limited resources, and still weren’t quite sure how it related to the book they were reading.

Learning is Vulnerable  Learning is Vulnerable  IMG_3007  Learning is Vulnerable

The results were dynamite. I mean, really quite well thought out and well designed. The kids gathered back in a Genius Lab to share their final product. Each group shared their understanding of tesseract. It’s a 4th dimension that might exist…but we can’t really understand even what it is or what it means because we can’t see it. The last group was composed of 3 boys. One new student, one student who has been with us from the beginning, and one student who is dyslexic and struggles greatly with reading. Our long time student began the presentation by describing his understanding of the second, third, and fourth dimension. He did a great job of helping describe that which he didn’t really understand. Next, our “struggling student”:

“Well actually, I believe that tesseract, this 4th dimension, could be related to black holes. When I was in Mrs. Weissman’s class (2 years ago) I studied black holes. Light collapses and if our bodies went in a black hole, they would be crushed. Everything gets crushed in a black hole, including time. Some people think that if we went in a black hole, we could go really quickly from one place to another, like I could move from far away to here in, like, a second. Teleportation. It’s like time stops existing.” He then picks up the book and points to the cover, “I think that this picture here is depicting this.”

It is at this point in his presentation that exclamations get yelled out, hands thrown up in the air and squeals rise. “Oh my gosh!!! That is what is happening in the book, he figured it out!” “That is why it is called a Wrinkle in Time!!” “Oh my gosh! We have to keep reading…”  All kinds of inferences and predictions and excitement ensued. This “struggling” student is THE hero. Even better, his teacher from 2 years ago gets to witness the whole thing, she has stopped by while her students are at recess. It’s like all learning is connected. It’s like we planned this brilliant moment…only we didn’t, not really. This is the beauty of community and inquiry.

Our new student adds additional brilliance and insight about how this new vocabulary could be connected to the story they are reading.

Day 2. Chapter 1.

Tell me where in your curriculum that moment happens. What test reveals the absolute brilliance of the “struggling” student that is now the hero that classmates look up to? What standard would have connected learning about black holes with this moment in a Wrinkle in Time? What technology leads to this moment? What ‘rigorous’ program allows for a new hero?

The truth is, that moment happened today because yesterday (and every day) we took the time to build community. We had fun together so that today, the second day of school, everyone felt comfortable presenting, getting excited together, and cheering each other on. All of that takes the kind of vulnerability that is only possible when camaraderie is fostered.

How do we build community? In all kinds of way. We start every year with detox week. Identity day. Ice blocking. Experiential learning/camping trips. Dance parties. Daily walks to start our day. Mentorship. Daily whole-school Metanoia. We do life together Every. Single. Day.

What should reformers be focusing on? Community. Who We Are.

As my friend Wes often says, “we can’t begin with what we are, we have to know who we are.”

Could not agree more!