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.

Who we are > what we do #standagain #studentswithnames #coloradogivesday

Perhaps the most heartbreaking outcome of the current systematization of education is the way that it unintentionally dehumanizes. Reduced to scores, we too often become pawns in a global game of competition. We seek to be valued while forgetting that we are already valuable. Worthy.
There are a distinct collection of experiences in my own school journey that left me wondering if I was worthy. After educating hundreds, I’ve come to realize that I’m not an anomaly. Every child longs to know that they are valuable. This longing isn’t dependent on social economic standing, family, or history.
It is part of the human condition, this desire to be known and seen as valuable.

In first grade I received the first inkling that I might not be enough. In my school, kids were nominated by their teachers for VIP awards. Each month the whole school gathered in the auditorium for an assembly where students were called on stage and handed their VIP award, because they were a Very Important Person. What I didn’t know in first grade was that every child eventually gets this award. I waited every month to be called, waited to see my parents sitting in the back of the auditorium revealing that this would be the month that my teacher would notice me.

That she would really see me. Value me.

Each month that my name wasn’t called, I felt a little more invisible.

It wasn’t until the last month of school that I received my award, followed by some cookies and punch. I was assigned the “leftover” VIP award. In an effort to elevate students by labeling them “VIP,” the system failed to make me feel valuable. In first grade the leftover VIP award was proof that I wasn’t enough. That I would have to work harder, be more perfect so that I would be noticed. Worthy.

In second grade I was placed in the advanced reading group with 4 other children. Initially I felt important and superior in this group. I was allowed to read chapter books! Ralph. S. Mouse. A book burned into my memory not because I fell in love with the story, but because it was the first time I realized that I could fool my teachers. I often volunteered to read aloud because I was praised for my annunciation, my cadence, and the voice I put into reading. I focused on reading each sentence perfectly. The problem came when we stopped to discuss the chapter, I had no idea what the book was about or why my fellow “advanced” readers enjoyed it so much. I was worried that if anyone found out, I wouldn’t get to be in the advanced reading group. That I wouldn’t be important any more. That I would lose my value. I quickly learned the unspoken rules of the system. If I volunteered to read aloud every time, I wouldn’t get called on to discuss the content of the story. I would have already taken my turn and could delegate the heavy lifting to my “smarter” classmates. I had them fooled.
I could be valued as a good reader but felt like a fraud.

I wasn’t really worthy.

By the end of third grade, I had mastered taking tests, the bastion of the education system. My third grade teacher revealed that school was a game, and that if you understood the game, you could figure out how to win. We discovered that test taking was directly related to winning this particular game. We learned how to use glossaries to look up the bold words in our textbooks. To my surprise, the bold words are often the answers to the blanks on the worksheets. You didn’t even have to read the book to answer the questions! You could skip the hard work and go straight to the bold words, look them up in the glossary, and fill in the blanks. Instant gratification. I got to be valued as smart by my teachers, classmates, and parents. I discovered, that if I studied the answers that I wrote on the worksheets, the test was a piece of cake. This revelation was like knowing the cheat code for a video game. I could master the game and the test; I knew the secret. I could be valued as “smart” but still felt like a fraud.

Again the message, I wasn’t really worthy.

My passionate focus for the remainder of my school career became success. I ardently believed that success inside of this system was a worthy passion, and that belief was encouraged every time I got the praise, the “A,” the 4.0. I didn’t stop to consider if I was actually learning, that wasn’t my goal. I was the easy student working to survive in the system by aiming for the perfect score. Like all kids I was longing to be known, to be seen as valuable. I believed that if I played the game well enough that I could earn that value. Instead, I became invisible. Forgettable. I was left wondering if I had anything special about me. Any gifts or talents.

I was left wondering, am I worthy?

In the current education landscape, kids are routinely forgotten because the system isn’t really about them. The system values competition. It values being superior. But it doesn’t really know the individuals who comprise the whole. Embolden by being ‘the best’ it is blind to individuals. It exploits kids for the bragging rights of being at the top. We begin to believe this myth ourselves, that academic superiority (the best test scores) will make our country strong, that we become relevant in this global economy by touting our collection of high scores. We pontificate that this “race to the top” will bring us success and make us happy. All the while we lose.

We lose ourselves, our identity, our uniqueness, and our voice.

Apathy wears many faces. Some encounter this apathy as I did, in playing the system’s game. I believed that attaining the “A” was success, so when I achieved the “A,” my quest was over. There was no reason to push in, no room for curiosity or learning. The system told me that I was already “successful.” Already smart. So, even though I often felt like a fraud, I figured out the game and gleefully accepted my honor roll certificate. My apathy looked like a 4.0.
Apathy can also look like failure. It can be the student who tries hard, but hasn’t figured out the system. The one who gets so many red marks that they believe that it isn’t worth pushing in. These are the students who are convinced that they are stupid. Who believe they can’t attain success.
Then there are the students who fall somewhere in between. Maybe memorization comes easily for them, but they aren’t interested in playing the game and jumping through the hoops. Their apathy looks like rebellion. They have little interest of proving what they already know.
Apathy can also wear the face of defeat. Of beginning with a disadvantage because of the neighborhood you live in, the family you were born into, the expectations of your community.

Regardless of who you are, what your social economic status is, this is a system that breeds apathy. Feelings of fraud, being stupid, defeat.

Of not being worthy. Of not being valuable.

This is a system where we learn how to be students, but we have no idea how to use our minds. Many, like me feel like a fraud. We know how to win the game, but it feels like cheating. Every time we are called, “smart” we feel like a con artist. The system isn’t made to honor our humanity. It can’t bear our vulnerabilities. It can’t cope with our failures. Even in my ‘perfection’ of good grades, of playing the game and being the pleaser, there was a very real fear of “what if;” what if they find out? As William Deresiewicz says in Excellent Sheep, “we aren’t teaching to the test, we’re living to it.” And in the end, even if the United States sells it’s soul to perform higher than every other country on a test, we still aren’t competitive. We’ve just created a population of excellent sheep. The temporary praise of playing within the rules of the system can be intoxicating for a time, until you remember that none of them know you, not really.

In education, we are dealing with humanity. We are working with individuals who are unique in the whole of history. We are teaching those who have gifts, passions, talents, and purpose all their own in a system dedicated to making them all look the same. This focus on perfection and competition is at the expense of individuals with names and purpose in the world. Ignoring who a child “is” misses the core of what it means to be alive as a learner. The system is 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 with the rest of the world rather than recognizing that the population is made up of incredible individuals.
Who are worthy.
Who are valuable.

Penelope (not her name) was a student who believed the system when it told her that she wasn’t worthy. She struggled in school, was labeled as dyslexic, and was utterly defeated. You could see it in her posture and lack of eye contact. Hunched shoulders as if she was folding into herself. She wouldn’t speak up in class for fear of failure. If she dared to raise her hand, it was barely noticeable, tucked into her side with fingers hesitantly stretched up next to her ear. If you called on her, she would whisper so that the teacher could edit her answer before it reached the ears of her classmates. Penelope is BRILLIANT. She makes connections that others miss. She is kind, empathetic, and funny. She struggles to fit into a system that wants to use her to compete for top score. And so she believes it. She believes she isn’t worthy, that she isn’t valuable. You could see her wear this burden like a cloak. An amazing thing happened when Penelope learned that there was more to learning than the system. It was as if she was set free. As she discovered the beauty in her unique outlook on the world, her gifts and talents, that she was valuable, Penelope began to sit up straighter. She looked teachers and classmates in the eye. She spoke a little louder for others to hear. She challenged herself to break free of the fear and connect with others. She began to see herself differently. She embraced her worth.

At Anastasis, we have the audacity to step outside of the system that forgets the individual. We leave the perceived comfort of false data that tells kids they are smart if they learn to play the game. We recognize and know each individual. We honor them in their humanity and not as a means to an end to compete for top score. We know that they are valuable because they are uniquely created with gifts, talents, and purpose. Just like Penelope. We know that the world desperately needs the unique contribution that they alone can add. Kids are worth more than a score that contributes to the GDP. Learning as a human endeavor is too big and too beautiful to fit into the tiny, meaningless data battles we insist on to prove how competitive we are. At Anastasis we recognize all are valuable.
With that as our premise, we’ve created a school, a model that chooses humanity every day. We choose to know kids’ names and help them recognize their worth.
Anastasis is Greek, it means “stand again.” This is what we desire for students: that they would be able to stand again in who they are. We prepare students to engage the world from a place of worth. To find their unique purpose and pour into the world accordingly.

There is a sense of urgency to get this right, to make the best decisions for kids. The kids in our schools right now? They keep growing. Keep waiting to be seen as valuable and worthy.
We have a choice today, are we going to define kids based on scores and competition? Or, are we going to seek to know them?
Will we ask them to all look the same as a result of their schooling? Or, will we help them discover their identity and place in the world?
Will we make them feel defeated? Or, will we show them that they are valuable and worthy?

Anastasis Academy is here to pave the way as a champion of students with names. A model for what school looks like when it values individuals above all else. An example lighting the way for all of education to follow. This is a commitment that we can all make, a commitment to value and dignify the humanity of the individual over meaningless data. To show kids that they are valuable and worthy independent of their performance and scores. To help kids #standagain.


  • Your donation to Anastasis Academy (a tax deductible nonprofit) is an investment in humanity so that they can stand again in who they are, discovering their unique purpose in the world. You’ll make them unafraid to be learners for life, not just the next test.

    Take a look at what’s possible:

    Unique individuals: Your donation helps us empower students to discover who they are and how their unique gifts, talents, and outlook contribute to a world in need.

    Leaders: Your support helps students plug into their community as contributing citizens right now, they don’t have to wait until they are “grown-up” to enact change. Our students work as leaders to use their learning to make positive change right now in Colorado and the world.

    Achievers: Your donation helps us prepare students as long-term achievers who know who they are, how to self advocate, what to do when they don’t know, and how collaborate with others.

    Explorers: With your support, we expand our student’s worldview with weekly learning excursions that remind them that learning doesn’t just happen in the 4 walls of our classrooms. Learning happens everywhere, and there is always someone to learn from!

    Altering the education discourse: Anastasis Academy is paving the way for schools everywhere to make bold changes in education and rethink the purpose of school.

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