Unintended consequences of a system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Embodied learning and things that don’t have names

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about education.  How we prove that learning has taken place.  Inevitably we talk about standards, measures, awards, grades, success.  Anastasis has given me the freedom to completely redefine education.  There are no limits, except of my own making.  I get to decide how to talk about education.  This would be easy if I was doing all of this in a vacuum, but I’m not.  There are stakeholders who care about how I talk about education.  Parents, teachers, students, higher education.

The problem, I’m discovering, is that when we talk about education, we talk about it too narrowly.  It is possible to be very committed, data driven, tech savvy, “21st century,” and yet be working against the kind of learning that is transformative.  We can have all the right tools, the measures, the awards and test score evidence and still not really see.  We can miss the thing we care most about, because we are so focused on trying to define it.

I’ve been learning about embodied energy, this is the sum of all energy required to produce goods or services.  It is the energy that can’t be seen because it isn’t obvious.  The measures, the awards and test score evidence…they aren’t really the learning.  They are poor representations of learning.  I’m more interested in the embodied learning.  I want to know about all of the little moments, the prior learning, the assumptions that led up to the light bulb moment for a student.

Because novels are more than just words.

Songs are more than just notes

Paintings are more than just color.

When you separate out the words, notes or colors they don’t do anything.  They cease to tell a story. They cease to move us.  It is when the words come together, in very specific orders, that a story is told.  When the notes are intentionally strung together that we get music that resonates with us.  When the colors dance on a canvas that we are moved to emotion.

So, when we talk about education and we look at data points and test scores and numbers, we lose something. The number can’t tell a story.  It can’t show the incredible little moments that led up to learning.  Because there IS embodied learning.  The part that really matters.  The embodied story that tells us that learning was more than just the shallow memorization of surface facts.  That there was a journey that led to the light bulb moment.  The tricky part comes in the stakeholders.  They want the learning to be defined.  But a lot of that embodied learning doesn’t have a name.  It can’t be measured in any scientific, rational, conventional way.

We end up talking about education as if it can fit inside a 20 second sound bite.  We boil it all down to one sheet of paper that tells kids if they measure up or not.  When we reduce everything down to the soundbite, we strip away something vital to who students really are, the journey and learning that takes place.  Students can become completely enslaved to expectations, good grades and accolades and lose their true selves in the process.  Lose the curiosity and wonder of learning.  This isn’t what the world needs.  The world needs people who are fully alive.  Who have passion.  It’s one thing to memorize and have the right answer (and right number on the report card), it is another to be so passionately engaged with learning that curiosities lead you to new learning.

Our job as educators is more than just standards we teach.  We are in the business of helping students know they are more than just a number.  More than just data points.  They are the story, the song, the art that moves and matters.  They are the embodied learning.

Our challenge is to help stakeholders care more about the embodied learning, the things that don’t have names.  The journey that collectively leads to things that matter.  Our challenge is to care most about students that are fully alive in their learning.

It is up to us to make the things that matter, the most important.


(Along this line of thinking, I’m attempting a redesign of the “report card” we need a way to better capture the things that can’t be named.)

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.

Education doesn’t need any more Nip Tuck: Our Normal Approach is Useless Here

Education isn’t about achievement, and yet, somewhere along the way that is exactly what its purpose became.  Somewhere along the line our perspectives shifted and we began to believe the lie.

The lie that the purpose of education is a number.

A grade.

We put so much emphasis on the notion that achievement is everything, that students began to believe that the number actually meant something.

That the number was everything.

If achievement is everything, education is surely at the pinnacle of its demise.  It can’t just be about the numbers. It has to be about more. It has to be about something more tangible, more real.  Right now we are in a cycle of implant syndrome (can’t claim this idea, came from my friend @matthewquigley who calls it “fake boobs”- stay with me here). We want our schools to look good on the outside, we want them to look perfect (like implants), but at the end of the day, what they represent isn’t real. There isn’t a whole lot of substance to them because substance isn’t the point. Looking good is the point. Getting noticed is the point.  This is the problem I have with focus on achievement and scores. The point isn’t substance, the point is to look like we have students who are performing at what we have deemed is an appropriate level.  When you get right down to it, isn’t there beauty in the imperfection?  Isn’t there beauty in natural learning process?  I love the opening scene of The Social Network movie where we see Mark Zuckerberg going on and on about scores and what else he can do to get in and get noticed. He says something to the effect of: If everyone gets a 1600 (perfect score on the SAT) what differentiates them?

Right now the education system puts the focus on what students don’t know.  We make students feel ashamed of what they don’t know and try to use that shame (of a poor grade) to make them work harder.  What if instead of focusing on what a kid doesn’t know, we help them realize what they do know?  What if we started capitalizing on what they know and used it to help them make connections in their learning?  What if we minimized the focus on achievement?

There are incredible teachers who have refused to sell students the lie that achievement is everything. There are incredible teachers who every day work to capitalize on what students do know and value students for more than the number.  My plea for education reform: minimize the focus on achievement and shift to a focus on learning.

Today as I was going through my overflowing Google Reader, I read this from Seth’s Blog:

“Our Normal Approach is Useless Here

Perhaps this can be our new rallying cry.

If it’s a new problem, perhaps it demands a new approach. If it’s an old problem, it certainly does.”

The direction of education is an old problem, our normal approach is useless here. It is time for education reform to be education re-imagine. Our normal approach is useless here.

Breaking Free of the Factory

In my last post, I wrote about how detrimental standardized curriculum is to a child’s developmental process, forcing them to grow in areas they may not be ready to grow.  The dream of customized curriculum lends itself nicely to the dream of a school without grade levels.

I have seen an enormous population of students move from grade level to grade level because they are the right age to do so, and not because they have mastered the learning for the year.  Kids get older each year, and each year they get moved to the next grade level, this is the way the current system works.  We move students through school as if it were a factory.  Except in very extreme cases, students get moved into the next grade level whether they are prepared for it or not.  As a result, we have 5th graders who can’t read, write, or perform basic arithmetic.  Why do we do this to students?  It isn’t that the student is incapable of learning the material, I would argue that the majority of these students are very capable.  They are capable enough to come up with coping mechanisms to get by until they day when they can make the choice to drop out of school.  The real root of the problem, is that these students weren’t given the opportunity to grow and develop at their own speed.  We forced them along until they no longer had anything solid to scaffold new learning upon.   I wonder if we had given those kids the opportunity to be developmentally ready for the learning, if we would face the same problems?

I dream of a school environment where there are no grade levels.  A school where students move on in their learning when they are developmentally ready and not just because they have reached a certain age.  Children don’t lose their teeth or learn to walk at exactly the same time, why would we expect them to learn to read, write, or solve math problems at the same time?  We need to transform this educational model into one without grade levels, one that moves students on to the next skill set only when they have mastered the previous skill set.  Students are allowed to grow and learn at a pace that is natural for that unique individual.  A school without grade levels would provide children with a more authentic real-world experience.  When is the last time that you worked with people who were all exactly the same age as you are?  In the workplace we rarely get to work with only our age group.  Without grade levels, several ages may be working on the same skill set, learning how to work and collaborate with various age groups.

Multi-age grouping of students allows us to teach to the child rather than the grade.  We are able to take into account the different rates that children develop academically, socially, and emotionally.  We can customize our curriculum to fit the unique needs of our students.  Our goal, then,  is on the learning and not on moving students through a curriculum so that at the end of the book we can send them to the next grade level.  Our students deserve to learn at their own pace and ability.  Our students deserve an opportunity to succeed. Let’s rethink sending students on because they are the right age, and start sending them on because they are ready.