design thinking

When everyone in the building has agency

Last year we realized that we had created a unique problem for ourselves: our students were outpacing our biggest expectations and ambitions. They were, without a doubt, ready for the next academic leap of learning. Three of our students were taking advantage of the lack of ceiling in their learning and were quickly chewing up the academic expectations usually reserved for 15 and 16 year olds. The problem: we are a kindergarten through eighth grade school. These were 12 and 13 year olds.

As a staff, we were regularly astounded by the quality of writing that came out of these talented kids. Wise beyond their years, the depth of understanding and connections they made in inquiry were truly incredible. No less incredible, the literature they were enjoying and the math they were flying through.

A few months into the school year their teacher, Lance Finkbeiner, came to me with a crazy idea (my favorite kind!). What if instead of a typical 8th grade, ‘final,’ year at Anastasis, we offered a gap year before they went to high school? What if they took everything they’ve learned through their time at Anastasis and did the “next level” of it? Maybe they could even get high school elective credit for it. We could introduce them to even more great literature, maybe give them internship opportunities, they can jump all in to exploring their passions.

If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I love these kinds of ideas and dreams. Of course I said, “let’s do it!” We put a rough plan together of what this thing-we’ve-never-done-before could look like. Then we shared the madness with the families of these students. “They are ready to start high school next year, but would you trust us to do this-thing-we’ve-never-done-before and use your kids as guinea pigs?” (Okay, so we were a little more eloquent than that.)

If you’ve ever started something like this from scratch, you know that things rarely go according to the original plan. The outcome usually resembles something that rhymed-with the original plan. It becomes this living, breathing thing that needs room to grow, adapt, and evolve.

The first thing we learned: Not everyone will think we are as brilliant as we do. Out of the three students we invited to take part in this grand experiment, two jumped in and the third opted to go to high school a year early.

The second thing we learned: High schools aren’t great with working with k-8 schools with crazy ideas (at least the local high schools here weren’t. They weren’t willing (able?) to give credit, even elective, to our students for this experience. Boo. When we get a ‘no’ around here, we don’t tend to back down, instead we double down. High schools won’t give them credit, maybe a university would. As it turns out, our audacious ask was met with a resounding, “yes!”

These students would receive a once-in-a-lifetime experience plus college credit for completing this Capstone year…as 13 year olds!

There were a lot of twists and turns along the way. Things we assumed, evolved as we actually started working. It may not have gone exactly the way we thought, but these girls were given agency over their year and the results were incredible. They were empowered to make meaningful decisions about what the year would look like. They were able to apply all other learning, experience, and inquiry that they’ve been building as an Anastasis student into one spectacular year. They were trusted and mentored as they made decisions. This year was one of creation, exploration, and beauty.

Last week, these students gave their final Capstone presentation.

Jaw dropping.

In my greatest expectations, I couldn’t have anticipated how incredible this year would end up for these young ladies. They read fantastic literature including: Linchpin, Afluenza, Systems Thinking, The Promise of a Pencil, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, and East of Eden, to name a few. From these books their takeaway was, “When we let our inner artist come to the surface, we can make extraordinary change in the world.”

The girls engaged over 30 non-profits to learn more about their work and to see how they might partner with the organizations to solve some of their biggest problems. Out of these 30 organizations, they identified those that they felt most connected to and those they were excited to support. They worked with:

  • Resilience Rising- This organization taught them about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They worked with them to spread awareness and raise money for this organization. The girls hosted a penny war challenge for Anastasis students. They raised just over $1,000 in a week and proudly presented the money to Resilience Rising, praising the important work they are doing in our community. Resilience Rising.JPG
  • Action in Africa- Uganda-based Action in Africa needed a revamp of the art-curriculum that they use with the children in Uganda. The Capstone girls wrote and created examples for 50 art lessons. They engaged design thinking to ensure empathy in their creation. This was proudly presented to one of the Action in Africa founders last week at their final presentation, they were promptly offered a full-time job at Action in Africa if they decided they wanted to skip high school (this was not a joke!). One of the Capstone girls will get to spend part of her summer in Uganda teaching the art curriculum she designed. Action in africa
  • Homeless Awareness- During Homeless awareness month, these girls spent time listening to the stories of the people at Denver Rescue Mission. They created a survey to find out what people could do to best support the homeless in our community. They wondered, what was most valuable? Money? Time? Food? They talked to people who were formerly homeless, as well as those currently experiencing homelessness. What they learned, “we want people to see us. We are still people, look us in the eye, ask us our name, listen to our story.” The girls took this to heart and commissioned the rest of the Anastasis community to do the same. They presented one morning to the whole school during Metanoia. This was followed by putting together hygiene kits that could be kept in the car and handed out on field trips, or as families are out and about. My favorite moment from this morning was an interruption of the Capstone girl’s talk when a student from our youngest class raised her hand and said, “Let’s just call them people.” (Instead of qualifying them as ‘homeless people.’) From the mouth of babes!Denver Rescue Mission
  • Refugee organizations- The girls also met with various local and international refugee organizations. They decided to put on an event where they could connect the community to raise awareness, give people the opportunity to collaborate, and encourage action…contribution. The girls planned and executed the whole event, from asking for donations for their silent auction, to getting food and wine donated, to finding speakers, making invitations, and presenting an original spoken word. This is worthy of a post all it’s own (stay tuned). It was an incredible evening. The girls raised $3000 and were offered jobs by the other organizations involved!refugee night

The girls summed up the Capstone year this way:

  • It was inquiry in action
  • We were able to explore beyond what our teacher planned
  • We were given freedom and privilege in our learning

Megan summed it up well, “This year taught me that we are capable!”

Indeed they are!

The Capstone Year was made possible because the teachers at Anastasis are given agency. They are empowered to try crazy things, to dream, and do things we’ve never done. In turn, they give students the same agency. This is the result. Summed up giving these girls agency over their learning resulted in:

  • Meeting with over 30 non-profits (all commented on how surprised they were at how comfortable the girls were having ‘adult’ conversations).
  • Directly impacted 8 non-profit organizations
  • Practiced design thinking that resulted in 50 art lessons
  • Gave inquiry legs
  • Put on 1 incredible event
  • Raised $4000 for the organizations they worked with
  • Saw that they are capable
  • Connected in empathy
  • Completed in-depth art projects and got to learn from an artist at the Denver Art Museum
  • Made over 100 hygiene bags with other students at Anastasis
  • Created ripples that will continue long after this year
  • Put together a homeless awareness sheet
  • Read incredible literature
  • Were offered 2 jobs
  • Received 3 graduate credits each
  • One got to spend nearly a month in Nepal with her father climbing to base-camp and visiting orphanages
  • Got the experience of a lifetime

 

What does agency look like in your school?

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.