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.





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.

    Donate today through: https://www.coloradogives.org/AnastasisAcademy/overview

Why I love worksheets

I have a confession to make, I actually really liked worksheets when I was in school; or rather, I liked some worksheets. My favorite worksheets were in history.   It wasn’t that I found them particularly engaging, or that I learned anything as a result of filling them out.  I really struggled at understanding and grasping history.  I couldn’t make sense of how all of the names, dates, and places fit together.  It didn’t tell a story, for me it might as well have been a grocery list.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was actually taking place and turn it into a story the way some of my classmates seemed to be able to do.  Which brings me back to my love of history worksheets.  I may not have  understood history, but I had an excellent grasp of how the worksheet system worked.  It was all linked directly to the textbook and all I had to do was find the answers.  I know this didn’t come easily for everyone, hence the C’s and D’s that were passed around when the worksheets were returned.  I was lucky enough to have had a teacher in elementary school teach me the secret of the textbook.  All I had to know was how to use the glossary, bold text, paragraph headings, and charts.  The answers are always there.  I easily completed the matching and multiple choice first and then would go for the short answer.  Those were supposed to make you think; if you ask most teachers why they include short answer/essay questions they will say that it is the best indicator of student understanding…not so.  I didn’t have to understand what I was reading to answer the questions; all I had to do was turn the question into a statement and then it was just another fill in the blank.  The tests were equally welcomed because I had figured out the trick for those as well.  They went like this: study all of the answers from the worksheets in the unit.  Memorize them.  Fill in the blanks on the test, match the vocabulary, circle the multiple choice answer, change the questions into statements. Easy.

I didn’t understand history, didn’t ever feel like I was “good” at it, and yet I had straight A’s in history all the way through school.  Why?  Because I understood the system and I used it to my advantage.  I liked the worksheets because they let me fool everyone (teachers included) into believing I was successful in those subjects where I wasn’t.  I didn’t mind that I didn’t really understand because the goal was the letter grade, not the learning.  I was concerned with the way that others perceived me… I was smart and excelled at every subject.  I knew how to work the system.

My last post was about cheating, it made some of you mad.  I think that is a good thing.  I think it is good for us to talk about education and have those uncomfortable discussions.  I tell you about my love of worksheets to illustrate what true cheating looks like.  I was a cheater not because I copied someone’s homework or used a mobile device during a test.  I was a cheater because I was playing the system and cheating myself from the learning.  This is the reason that we have to completely rethink the system we are in.  I was the kid who was good at memorizing facts to spit back out on a test.  But don’t be fooled, it wasn’t because I had learned anything.  I didn’t get straight A’s because I understood history.  Dishonesty comes in many forms and dishonest behavior needs to be dealt with appropriately.  We want to shape students who are honest and ethical, who follow the rules and when they disagree, do so respectfully.  But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that students don’t cheat every single day within the system.  Let’s don’t pretend that just because they are following the rules of the system that they aren’t cheating.  We have created a system of education that is false. We believe that students who do well on tests have learned the material. This just isn’t true.  The point of my last post was that we have to rethink education.  We have to think about why we tell students that they can’t use resources on tests.  Why can’t they? Then we can’t come up with a good answer about why the rule exists, we need to amend it and give students new parameters.


Intelligence is bigger than a number

I’m currently reading (and really enjoying) Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it as a summer read.  It is full of insight and thought but is an easy summer read.  I want to share some pieces of the book that are standing out to me and share some of my thoughts and responses as I read it.   Blogging helps me internalize what I am reading and continues the conversation beyond my thoughts and the pages in the book.

  • We have come to accept that intelligence comes with a number.  In the age of standardized tests, IQ numbers, and the “vanilla education” we have been lured to believe that intelligence is directly tied to a number.  Robinson points out just how wrong this is.  We have boiled education down to discovering how intelligent students are.  Instead of asking how intelligent are you?, a better question would be: how are you intelligent?
  • Current education is born out of existentialism, the idea that knowledge is what can be proved through logical reasoning and evidence.  The problem with existentialism was the question of where to begin this process without taking anything for granted that might be logically questionable.   As a result, Descartes came to the conclusion that the only thing that he could take for granted was his own existence.  “I think, therefore I am.”  The Industrial Revolution was a natural outcome of this kind of enlightenment thinking.  Schooling as we know it was also established at this time, in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Schools were built on the idea that intelligence can be quantified.
  • Robinson goes on to describe how the IQ test was created by Binet.  Binet didn’t create the test for the way it came to be used, he sought to help those with learning disabilities get the help they needed.  The use of the test changed in 1916 when Lewis Terman, of Stanford, took Binet’s test and developed the Stanford Binet Test.  Terman was part of the eugenics movement that sought to weed out entire sectors of the population, assuming that criminality, feeble-mindedness, and pauperism were genetic and possible to identify through intelligence testing.  The movement succeeded in lobbying for the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in 30 states.  If you were found to have a particularly low IQ, it was decided that you could not have children.  Obviously, these laws were eventually repealed.
  • Carl Bringham is the creator of the SAT test we use as a college entrance exam today.  Bringham also claimed to be a part of the eugenics movement.  5 years after creating the test, Bringham disowned it rejecting eugenics along with it.  Bringham may have disowned the SAT, but colleges and universities didn’t follow suit.   The SAT focuses on two intelligences: linguistic and mathematical.  Elitism in education is still alive and well because we refuse to consider intelligence in a broader sense.  We insist on standardizing education and making it a game of have and have-nots.  We insist on defining it in a limited scope using numbers as our guidelines.  Intelligence isn’t as finite as we have been led to believe.
  • Howard Gardner talks about our multiple intelligences.  These intelligences include: linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intra-personal.  Currently in education we focus on two of these.  All aspects of human intelligence should be nurtured and celebrated.  To down-play intelligence outside of mathematical and linguistic is to do a disservice to the child and the world.  Everyone has different strengths and aptitudes to offer the world.  I wonder how many of these we are missing out on by forcing everyone to focus on developing only two intelligences?  We are missing out on a rich fabric of humanity.  When we work at out own abilities and nurture out individual strengths, the world becomes a more complete place to be.
  • Teachers know that no child is a single intellectual score on a linear scale.  There are complexities there.  Yet we continue to use that score to determine the worth of a student, a teacher, a school.  Even children who score the same in standardized testing are vastly different and unique in their make-up.  They have their own passions, dreams, goals, and interests.  It makes me wonder if what separates the haves from the have-nots is not money at all.  Perhaps the biggest separating force is in the narrow definition of intelligence.  Maybe the difference in options has more to do with a series of tests that determines a child’s future than it does with money.

I am 3 chapters into The Element but I find myself stopping often and jotting down notes and digging deeper in an attempt to understand why education is in the place that it is.  What do you think? Am I jumping to conclusions too hastily?


On Creating Robots: Standardized Curriculum

Standardized, scripted curriculum is one of the biggest detriments to education that I can think of.  It doesn’t allow room for authentic learning experiences, students have a difficult time engaging with it, and it treats our students as if they are robots that have just been spit out of a factory wielding the exact same makeup.  It is ludicrous to think that every student will learn material in the exact same way at the exact same time. Children aren’t expected to walk for the first time because a book says they should, or lose their first tooth on command.  Why then, would we expect students to learn on command because the curriculum mandates it?  Children develop at different rates.  They walk when they are developmentally ready to walk, and they lose a tooth when they are developmentally ready to lose that tooth.  Shouldn’t learning be the same?  Shouldn’t we be taking cues from the children themselves?  Standardized curriculum doesn’t allow for this.  Standardized curriculum doesn’t truly allow for the different ways that children learn.  Oh sure, they may have a small section at the end of each chapter that offers ideas for differentiation, but is it true differentiation when we are still forcing the same learning?

We need flexible curriculum.  I dream of a day when schools don’t have to buy one standard curriculum.  I dream of a school where teachers can meet the individual learning needs of each child in their classroom by creating customized curriculum that meets those needs.  I dream of an iTunes like model where teachers can select chapters or books that meet the unique learning needs in the classroom.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not free-for-all education where anything goes.  It is a customizable education, it lets teachers do their jobs to the fullest, calling on their expertise of learning and children.  The need for standards and benchmarks are still there, the difference is that children are seen, not as robots to be plopped out of a factory, but as the individuals that they are.

Standardized curriculum lends itself to the current model of education that we have.  The straight rows of desks, the standardized testing, the grade levels and grades.  In order for a customized curriculum model to truly work, we need to rethink the way that education is done.  My dreaming isn’t finished.