design

In defense of humanity: what we value

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

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

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

All the while we lose.

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

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

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

What is it that we value?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision made?

Good.

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

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

Learning Genome Card Set

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

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

The anatomy of a Learner Profile:

 

Anatomy of a Learner Profile

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

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

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Learning Styles

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Multiple Intelligence Strengths

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

Learning Genome Card Set: Brain Dominance

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

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

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

Answer: “Nothing.”

Nothing.

Without fail!

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

What would they change?

Nothing.

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

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

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

They answer, “Nothing.”

They answer, “I like myself!”

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

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

How do we keep that?

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

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

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

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

They can do the scary things.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?

What is sacred in education?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

We hold certain beliefs about education because those who came before us set the ground work for how we operate schools. Those who came before us existed in quite a different reality of what it meant to be educated. At the dawn of industrialization, much of what we see in education probably made sense.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

In the last three months, I’ve led in the neighborhood of 300 teachers/administrators/district-heads through Anastasis Academy. They all come with a similar goal: they want to see how we personalize learning. Inevitably as I’m touring people through, they’ll exclaim over how articulate our students are in explaining what they are learning and the projects they are working on. They’ll show surprise over the way that our students are able to manage the freedom they are given to choose the “classroom” they will work in. They see it, and they still don’t always believe it works. We’ve been told that Anastasis is a “unicorn.” As our visitors talk among themselves, I can hear the “yeah, but…” Doubt creeps in. They try to make what they see at Anastasis fit the constructs they’ve already put into place.

Yesterday, I had a rare moment to jump into an early #edchat conversation on Twitter (spring break for the win!). The chat was about small class size and the way that changing the class size might change learning for the better. I had a lot to say about the positives that I see from having small class sizes. At Anastasis, our classes are capped at 12. One teacher, twelve students. Once again, I was met with awe…and again we became the “unicorn.” Many could see the benefits that come with smaller classes, but immediately pointed toward dollars being too tight to ever have hope of it being a reality. I can understand that viewpoint, with ever tightening budgets it is one that can feel too large to overcome.

When we started Anastasis Academy it was with no endowments, no grants, no private backers (unless you count the $160 I put in for a domain name, information night handouts, and establishing ourselves with the state of Colorado as a non-profit). Anastasis is a tuition funded school. Tuition is $9000 each year. I did not choose that $9000/year amount arbitrarily. I chose it because at the time, it was the per-pupil expenditure in the public school district where we started. I chose that number because I believe that the type of education that students enjoy at Anastasis should be available to ALL students, whether or not their family can afford a private education. I chose that number because I wanted to show that education CAN be different, and it isn’t really about money.

When we free ourselves from the perceived rigidity of the system that we are in, and begin with a clean slate, we are free to see things from new perspectives. Rather than trying to fit small class sizes into your current budget and system, try approaching the problem from a clean slate. I hear some of you “yeah, butting…” already. “Yeah, but we don’t have the luxury to start from a clean slate, we have to work in the system.”

Try this as an exercise.

It’s not meant to free you from the system, but instead to give you freedom in your thinking. By beginning ideation away from the rigid constructs, you may stumble onto an idea that you hadn’t considered before. It may give you just enough freedom to come up with a new approach that might just work in your system. The “yeah, but” statement puts a stop to the creativity, beginning with no constraints can lead to new ways of thinking and possibility. Instead of “yeah, but” try playing the “what if” game. What if none of these constraints were in our way? What if we could make decisions apart from the system we are in? What if we had a blank slate to dream up our perfect school? What if money was no object?

When beginning with a clean slate, I always like to begin with the non-negotiable. What do we value that we aren’t willing to compromise? What is impossible to do without? Begin with what you must have. When I went through this exercise, I found that what I value most is students-with-names. Kids who are unique individuals, and are treated as such, is central to all decisions that we make at Anastasis.

We begin with students with names.

Next: How do we support students-with-names? It’s been my experience that the best way to support students-with-names is not with a fancy new curriculum, new technology, or better standards; but by the people you surround them with. The teachers, those who will apprentice students in the art of learning. We empower teachers to be teachers. And so, our first decision is made. Teachers are non-negotiable. We have to find the best, for us this is defined as those who know how to build community, how to make students central to the learning process, those who are instructional designers and don’t rely on boxed curriculum, those that are empathetic and thoughtful.

Then: Where do we do this? A space for the learning to happen is important. We need a home base. It needs to fit our vision. It needs to be flexible. We also need to show students that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of our school. That it can happen anywhere, that there is always someone to learn from. And so, our second decision is made. We need a place to do the learning that fits our vision. We need a portion of our budget set aside to get students outside of the building once a week. We need them to be able to meet experts. We need transportation to make us mobile.

Finally: What will drive our learning? If we are valuing students-with-names, boxed one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer feels like a good fit. It doesn’t ladder up to support our non-negotiable. And so, our third decision is made. We will be inquiry based, we will help students think deeply, ask beautiful questions, problem solve, and chase learning. We will not put money into boxed curriculum, instead we will purchase only those books, experiences, resources, etc. that we need as inquiry unfolds. We will be agile.

The bulk of my budget at Anastasis goes toward those things I value most. I hire teachers first, lease the space that we learn in and learning-excursions/transportation second, and support inquiry with resources third.

As you dream, start with what is necessary. Then move on to what is desired (realize that you may be able to fill these wishes outside of your budget creatively- we are a 1:1 BYOD iPad school because it is the only supply on our supply list. For our families, it is more cost-effective to own the technology than to fill a list of school supplies each year. As a school, it is more cost-effective for us to purchase the typical school list for students than to own the technology). Finally fill in with what is left.

Do this with your colleagues. Dream together. Start with a clean slate. Use the improv ethic. In improv theater, the rule is that you go with what you are given. This usually consists of a fictional identity, a scene that is set up for you. Ground Rules: You can’t suddenly chuck the scene mid-speech. You can’t contradict lines fed to you by fellow actors…it will kill the scene because there will be nothing to say after it.

Try employing the improv ethic at your next staff meeting. Liberate yourselves by giving your minds a ground zero, clean slate, to begin thinking. Choose a problem that bothers you in education (class size is a great one!). Why does it bother you? Then, as an ideation experiment add a change to the scene and follow the implications of that change from one scene to the next. How does it change things for the budget? How does it change things for students? Parents? Teachers? In improv they teach this idea of “yes, and…” Solve the problem and look for a solution rather than implementing the “yeah, but…” that limits ideas and shuts down new thinking. Dream big. Dream without the limitations you might ‘know’ exist. As I said, in the process you may discover a solution or way around a very real limitation you wouldn’t have considered or come up with otherwise. In a very real way, this blog (Dreams of Education) did that for me. This was a safe place to have crazy dreams that ended up becoming a new reality. If you had asked me about starting a school 6 years ago, I would have adamantly told you that I would never start a school. That I didn’t even know the first place to start.

Try following your dreaming and thinking down a rabbit hole, giving permission for absurdity and silliness. This is often what the brainstorming and ideation phase of design thinking looks like. Often solutions grow out of what at first glance appears as absurd and impossible. Shut down the inner critic- suspend the naysayers and come up with something new.

What is truly sacred in education?

The incredible, creative, unique individuals that we call students.

That is sacred.

That is non-negotiable.

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!

What Dreams May Come: A Sneak Peek into Anastasis Academy

It’s a pretty incredible thing to see dreams come to fruition.

For me it started with an obsession and passion for creating rich learning environments where every student was recognized as an individual. In that first post I wrote:

“I have a dreams of education. I have dreams of the way that schools should look. I have dreams of kids who find their passions. I have dreams of schools as rich learning centers.”

I had dreams of stripping the “vanilla” away so that passions could emerge.

Dreams of ditching that boxed curriculum that we call an education and watching the factory model fade into the rear-view mirror.

Dreams of ending the practice of viewing teachers (and students) as expendables.

I had dreams of schools that were beautiful, that were designed with students in mind.

Dreams that education would stop looking so much like the McRib.

Dreams of breaking free of the box, of valuing students and teachers,  of using the right tools, of a school where a student’s inner da Vinci can break through, of a school that customizes learning.

I shared dreams of more fabulous failures.

The dreams started trickling into reality in March of this year (2011).  In March I started getting some hints that these dreams weren’t really all that far-fetched.  By May I had officially started a school.  In August we opened the doors to Anastasis Academy with our first 50 students in 1st through 8th grade and had hired a dream team of 5 truly incredible teachers to lead them.  In four short months we went from dreams to reality.

At Anastasis Academy, we lease space from a church building throughout the week.  We have our own wing with classrooms, a playground, a gym and a kitchen.  All of our furniture is on wheels.  This makes it easy to adjust space daily based on needs, it is also a necessity since we use shared space.  Twice a week we move all of our belongings across the hall into a storage room (if I’m honest, this is the part we could do without!).  We can’t complain about the space.  It is pretty incredible!

You will notice that we don’t have rows of desks.  No teacher’s desk either.  We have space that kids can move in. Corners to hide in, stages to act on, floors to spread out on, cars to read in.  We are learning how to learn together, learning how to respect other children’s space and needs, learning how to discipline ourselves when we need to, learning how to work collaboratively, we are learning to be the best us.


You won’t see a worksheet at Anastasis. We use iPads.  That isn’t to say that we ONLY use iPads, in fact, you’ll often see us building, cutting, pasting, writing on a whiteboard/chalkboard and even paper.  We do a lot of blogging, a lot of reflecting, a lot of Evernotting, a lot of cinematography, a lot of discussing.

Every morning we start with a 15 minute walk outside together…as a community.  We invite parents and siblings to be a part of our morning walk. Occasionally we have the dogs join in on the fun.  After the walk we come inside as a whole-school for a time of devotions. Again, this is a time for us to build community, to foster the culture we want for our school.  Families are invited to join us every morning.  We always have at least one family and, many times, multiples.  We pray with each other and for each other. We have hard conversations and funny conversations. We think together and challenge each other.

Matthew West joining us for devotions!

Our inquiry block is a time for hands-on transdisciplinary learning.  This is my VERY favorite time to walk through classrooms.  It is incredible to see the joy in discovery.  It is incredible to have a second grade student with dyslexia discover an app to make stop motion animations, teach himself how to use it and proceed to stand up before 7th and 8th grade students to explain how stop motion works.  I wish I could bring you all through the building during this time.  Every time we have a visitor the students pause long enough to describe what they are doing, the learning that is happening. I often have to pick my jaw up off the floor. These kids are amazing.


We have no curriculum. At all. Zip. What did we do instead? We hired the very BEST teachers we could find.  We gave them a base level of skills that we wanted students to have- an outline if you will.  We used the Common Core Standards as our baseline.  We don’t use the standards like most schools do. We use them to make sure that our students have the building blocks and foundations of learning in place.  And then we let our students and teachers GO. The standards are not a weight we are tied to, they are the underpinnings that make it possible for us to soar and take our learning anywhere.  When you look at the Common Core standards they are pretty underwhelming.  I’m glad they are! They provide us with just enough momentum to propel us forward and then off we go on a journey of learning!  We also have our big inquiry questions in place.  From there, we go where the learning takes us, bunny trails and all.  It is pretty fantastic.  Today one of our primary students came out to see me and said, “Look at this boat I found in this new library book. Can I try to make it?”  My answer: “Absolutely! What materials do we need?”  Together we made a list of all the materials I needed to pull together for him.  Tomorrow he will build that boat he is fascinated with and find out if it works the way he has planned.  That is learning!  Tell me what boxed curriculum allows time for that to happen? None. That is why we don’t have it.

In the afternoons we have more “content” area subjects (i.e. math and language arts).  In the primary grades this means students building the skills they need to support their inquiry.  In the intermediate grades this means honing those skills for better communication and more thorough inquiry.  Again, we don’t work from a boxed curriculum. We find the lessons, approaches, and materials that work for the individual student.  Sometimes this means working with manipulatives, sometimes it means exploring measurement outside, and sometimes it means using an app.  It changes daily based on the needs of the students.

We have mixed age level classrooms.  We do this for a lot of reasons.  Most importantly, it is good for older and younger students to work together and learn from each other; it is vital that a child be able to work at their developmental level and progress as they are ready to; and it deepens inquiry when students with different perspectives work together.

Once every five weeks we invite the parents to join us for Parent University.  This is a time for us to help parents understand this new way to do school.  Detox, if you will.  It is a time for us to show parents what best practices in education look like, why grades aren’t all they are cracked up to be, why play is important.  It is a time for us to think and laugh together. It is a time to get questions answered.

Also every five weeks, we hold a “Meeting of the Minds”.  This is a parent/teacher/student conference where we all get together and set our road map for the next 5 weeks.  Students write goals with the help of their teacher. They have ownership over what they have done the last 5 weeks and tell mom and dad what they have planned for upcoming 5 weeks.

Every Friday we have a learning excursion or an opportunity for an “Anastasis Serves”.  Learning excursions are field trips all over the place that help students start to recognize that learning doesn’t just happen when we are at school.  Learning happens everywhere we are and, if we are paying attention, all the time.  Anastasis Serves is a time for our students to give back to the global community.  Sometimes this is a door-to-door scavenger hunt for donations, sometimes this is learning about orphans around the world, or packaging cookies and letters to send to our troops.

We don’t do grades, we do assessment all day every day while we learn.  We don’t do homework, we pursue our families and passions at home.  We don’t do worksheets, we do interesting (sometimes frustrating) work. We don’t do boxed curriculum, we do on-demand learning.

We do mistakes. We do community. We do collaboration. We do messy. We do play. We do fun. We do technology. We do learning.

How do we do all this? We have a 12 to 1 student teacher ratio (or less).  We have incredible students, parents and teachers.  We have stinking smart board members who are invested in our success and trust our judgement calls.  We set our tuition at $8,000 (per pupil spending in our district) to show that even though we are private, this can be done in the public schools.  We started with nothing…well almost nothing, we had dreams.  There was no capital raised, no fund-raisers, no huge donation. We started the beginning of the year at $0 and put blood, sweat and tears into it.

This is not to say that we have it all figured out, that all of our students are perfect, that all of our staff or families are perfect. We are perfectly imperfect as every school is. We have days when the kids are BOUNCING off the walls, we have disagreements, tired teachers, stressed parents, a founder who has occasional melt downs (that would be me), students who need extra love and support, tight budgets, parents who demand different, scuffles, sniffles and band-aids…lots of band-aids.  There is nowhere else I would rather be. No other group of people I would rather work with. No other students whose germs I would rather share. This is my dream.

There are moments throughout the day when I am stopped in my tracks by the realization-this is my dream.

Neglecting Value

Recently I found a new non-educational blog that I am really enjoying called Be Deviant. The Blog author, Justin Wise, recently wrote a post called 3 Steps to Make People Feel Valued. In the post, Justin mentions a book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwarz. After reading Justin’s post, I was eager to read the book too. I am only a few chapters in, but haven’t been able to get Justin’s post out of my mind because it relates so closely to the other posts I have written recently on Dreams of Education. I hope Justin doesn’t mind that I piggy back on his thoughts as they relate to education.

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working-Tony Schwartz

How we feel profoundly influences how we perform.  Feeling devalued pushes us into the Survival Zone-which increases our fear, distracts our attentions, drains our energy, and diminishes the value we’re capable of creating…Perhaps no human need is more neglected in the workplace than to feel valued.

Schwartz thoughts are geared toward the workplace here but how many of us could replace workplace with school environment?  There is a culture in most schools of devaluing students and educators.  That culture may not be overt but it is felt in subtle ways every time a students or teachers self-worth is based on a single standardized test.  It is felt when students aren’t treated as the individuals that they are, but are instead taught from scripted curriculum and moved from grade to grade because it is the next step and not necessarily because they are ready for it.  It is felt when politicians make asinine decisions like that schools make public whether teachers are doing enough to raise students’ test scores.  It is felt when merit pay is discussed as if the only reason schools are failing is because teachers don’t make enough money to do their job better.  It is felt when a student walks into a classroom and sees the utilitarian rows of desks and moulded plastic chairs that we ask them to sit in for 6 hours a day.  Schools neglect the human need to feel valued.  What results are schools that act out of places of fear, strapping teachers and students down even more so that they will perform on the test (forget learning).  It is no wonder that teachers are drained and may only last 3 years in the profession.  It is no wonder that students attentions are distracted and they do what they must to get by.  The value that students, teachers, and administrators are capable of creating wanes because they aren’t being valued.

In his post Justin offers three ways to value others, I’m using his three as a rough outline.

1.  Let people know what they bring to the table.

For students this means helping students find what Sir Ken Robinson terms The Element.  Tell your students what abilities you see in them.  Be specific.  I had a fifth grade teacher who told me once that I was a beautiful writer.  I never knew that about myself.  I didn’t generally enjoy writing at school because no one had ever appreciated it before.  As I came to learn, I quite like writing.  Don’t forget to let students tell you what they bring to the table.  The school day just doesn’t allow ample opportunities for us to discover all of our students gifts, so let them tell you about their passions, let them show you where they think their abilities lie.

For teachers and administrators this means recognizing what your colleagues do that is unique and valuable.  We may assume that our colleagues know what value they add to the school environment.  Tell them anyway.  Making someone feel valued means that we recognize that they are valuable and letting them know it.  If you aren’t telling your colleagues what you value about them they will start to believe that what they offer isn’t valuable.  Don’t let that happen.

2. Give Specific Feedback

For students this means that when you grade something they have spent time on, you take the time to let them know what specifically was good about it or needed work.  There is nothing more frustrating than spending hours working on something and then receiving a letter grade at the top.  What does that mean?  Giving specific feedback shows our students that we value the time they spent on an assignment or project.  It shows them that we value them enough to spend our time reflecting on what they have done.  When we do have to correct or offer a negative comment, it will be received from a much different place.  Instead of thinking “they have no idea how hard I worked on that and all they do is criticize me;” they may start to view the criticism for what it is, correction to help them grow.  Giving specific feedback makes you more than a teacher, it makes you a mentor and someone who disciples.  Discipleship is a lost art that needs to be reintroduced in the classroom.

For teachers and administrators this means offering thoughtful advice and encouragement.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  Unless you are limited to 140 characters, specific feedback will always make people feel more valuable.  Being specific lets others know that you were actively attending to what you observed and that you appreciated it enough to elaborate beyond the “atta boy”.  If you are an administrator that is in the position of observing teachers, make sure that you offer initial feedback as well as specific follow-up feedback.  As a teacher, there is nothing worse than being observed by your boss only to have them leave without saying anything and offering an “it was a really good lesson” a few weeks later.  Give me immediate feedback with your initial reactions and then follow it up with more specific feedback.  Because I feel valued, I am more likely to take any advice you have to heart and work on implementing it.

3.  Celebrate the people around you.

We don’t celebrate our students enough.  We don’t let them know how much we are rooting for them, how much we want the very best for them.  Do something extraordinary and unexpected for your students.  In my classroom this meant giving them a “free day” where they could show me what neat technology they were using and act as the teacher.  Extraordinary doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to demonstrate that we value our students.  I had an exceptional third grade teacher.  Every once in a while she would hold a classroom celebration where we got to eat lunch with her IN the classroom.  She made this a really big deal, fun music, special games, and ice cream sandwiches at the end.  When we asked her why we were celebrating she would let us know how proud she was of the way we were growing and learning, so much so that she wanted to celebrate it.  This is the same teacher who would leave us special notes of encouragement in our desk (on purchased funny Hallmark cards), sent me a birthday card for two years after she was my teacher, and encouraged our parents to write us notes throughout the year.  She knew how to make us feel celebrated.  It doesn’t have to cost money, it just needs to be demonstrative.

For teachers and administrators this means going out of your way to celebrate them.  If you are an administrator, gift your teachers with an extra hour of planning throughout the year, stop in the classroom and take over so they can go to the bathroom, bring them a cup of their favorite coffee.  If you are a teacher let other teachers know they are celebrated, leave them a note of encouragement, slip a handful of chocolate on a long day, leave them flowers for no reason.  Celebrate every accomplishment of every teacher.  If someone has started a blog, that is cause for celebration, did someone try a new project or tech tool in the classroom? That is cause for celebration!

This is where Justin finished his list but I have to add one more.

4. Change the environment.

Environment can make us feel valued, for my complete thoughts on why, read my post Beauty Matters.

Ask your students what they would like the classroom to look like, and then let them help you make it special for them.  Classroom furniture is SO impersonal and factory feeling.  Think about how the arrangement of your classroom can change the feel. In high school I had a teacher who lined his walls with desks, they were not to be used as desks but as surfaces to display student work and achievements.  The rest of the room was completely open.  Many times we would sit in a circle of chairs, but he let us work the way we wanted to.  By the end of the year students had donated couches, bean bag chairs, and lamps to make the room feel more comfortable.  Everyone looked forward to that class because it was such a welcome break from the rows in every other classroom.

If you are a teacher or administrator, create a place that is just for relaxing.  Teachers lounge 2.0.  Decorate it with art, add a CD player, offer magazines and “real” chairs.  Make it comfortable and aesthetically appealing.  We all need a place to escape to sometimes, give teachers that place.  Let teachers have ownership in how the space looks.  Beauty matters, it is important and it sends the message that people are valued.

As it turns out, showing people they are valued isn’t hard, it just takes a conscious effort.  Let’s transform our schools into places where everyone who walks in the building feels valued.