metanoia

How to make magic: create space

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

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

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

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

Amal at Metanoia

Her presence, her grace, her thoughtfulness.

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

In awe of Amal Kassir

Fake selfies with Amal Kassir

Amal Kassir listens to Anastasis spoken word

Magic.

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

 

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?

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!