students with names

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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.

 

 

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.

School is so much more than learning all the right things

The first question that I get asked when people find out that I’ve started a school: what makes Anastasis Academy different? And this is a tricky one to answer, because the truth is EVERYTHING makes us different. It’s hard to describe something that no one has seen before, so you begin to relate it with ideas and concepts that people are familiar with. The more I’ve talked about Anastasis, the more I’ve begun to really recognize what it is at the heart that makes us so different. It is our starting point and driving force: students-with-names.

That may seem like a strange comment to make, “students-with-names,” because, of course they have names! But in education, we make a lot of decisions without these specific students-with-names in mind. We make decisions for students as if they are a homogeneous group, or worse, a number.

As if they don’t have special interests/passions/gifts.

As if they don’t have something unique that the world needs.

At Anastasis Academy, we see the potential of students-with-names and help them believe that they are capable of realizing that potential. That it is worth the risk of being fully alive. That they can be vulnerable in community.

When we talk about education, too often the focus is on learning all the right things, equipping kids with the right content and answers. But the truth is, a great school is about so much more than learning all the right things. A great school is about connecting humanity. It is about finding the educators who can draw students out, who can foster humanity and connection. Who see potential and help others see it, too. Who help kids embrace their worth and value.

Because we start from this place, from students-with-names, every other decision we make has to honor that.

So we can’t think about curriculum as a one-size-fits all.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t assess in a way that minimizes the individual and the learning journey that is happening.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t have large class sizes that prohibit us from getting to know the stories of students.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t pretend that worksheets, tests, and grades are what learning is about.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t let technology be the teacher.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t have restrictive classroom space.

Because, students-with-names.

We can’t rely on typical professional development to prepare teachers.

Because, students (and teachers)-with-names.

When your goal is honoring the humanity, EVERYTHING else must shift to help meet that goal. Everything must be adjusted outside of the assumptions we make as adults about what education “should” look like.

Last week, I asked every Anastasis teacher to come to school on Tuesday with sub plans with one caveat- don’t “dumb it down” for the sub! Just continue on with whatever you were doing. That was all of the information I shared. On Tuesday morning, we all met in the office. I had slips of paper with every class name on it. Each teacher chose a name. This was to be their class for the morning.

Teacher Swap!

My goal was a simple one, build community and empathy among the staff. If you’ve met the staff at Anastasis, you may have wondered at this goal (these are the most amazing people who have incredible empathy and we have a pretty tight community). Something different happens when you are in a classroom that isn’t yours, teaching students you don’t normally teach. You begin to see things through new lenses, different perspectives. You begin to problem solve differently. We had a Jr. High teacher with our 2nd-3rd grade, our 4th-6th teacher with our kindergarten. Teachers who normally teach young students, teaching some of the oldest. It was outstanding!

During our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about the successes and challenges that were faced. We remembered what it is like to be a “new” teacher again, the fish-out-of-water feeling that comes from having a loose inquiry plan with a different age group. It revealed the way that each class ladders up and prepares these students-with-names for the next part of their learning journey. It reminded us not to set boundaries and expectations too low; these kids are capable of greatness! It revealed to the teachers of the older students why the teachers of the younger students are ready for recess at 10:00am on the button. :)

In a few weeks, teachers will begin to go into each other’s classrooms as an observer. My hope is, that the time spent teaching in each other’s classes will provide them with greater insight and more thoughtful observation.

In February, we invite you to come visit us. Join us to see first hand how a focus on students-with-names impacts everything that we do (including our approach to conference PD!)  The 5Sigma Education Conference is an opportunity for you to see first hand what makes Anastasis such a different learning environment. On February 19th, our students will tour you through our building, they’ll walk you through classes and talk to you about their learning experiences. We have two incredible keynotes by equally incredible people. Angela Maiers is our opening keynote. If you aren’t familiar with Angela’s work, I encourage you to take a look at her here, and learn why she is the perfect person to kick off our “students-with-names” focused conference. Bodo Hoenen is our closing keynote. Bodo has a passion for making individualized learning possible for children who have been largely forgotten.  In between those keynotes, will be sessions, panels, featured speakers, conversations, and plenty of inspiration. On February 21st we’ll take a field trip together.

This is our second 5Sigma Education Conference, if you were at the first, you know what a powerful weekend this is. If you weren’t with us last year, you will not want to miss out this year! Check out what last year’s attendees had to say about the weekend here.

Register today and take advantage of early-bird pricing!

Have something that needs to be added to our conversations? The call for proposals is still open! Click on the link above and head over to the “Propose a Session” tab.

Knowing Kids As Well As We Know Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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