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Crafting an Inquiry Block and Helping Others “See”

The thing about inquiry…once it has you in it’s grasp, there will be no escaping it. It’s magic. You begin to realize that everything is connected and you’ll want to know more about all of it, and also change the world, because you’ll see things that you haven’t before.

It will be gloriously frustrating (time is still finite) and fun (because learning is breathtaking and wonderful!).

Inquiry is the way to indulge in all of the beauty and wonder in the world.

It unleashes the possible.

You’ll find yourself frustrated that you wasted so many minutes on “learning” that was less. That you spent so much time calling memorization and regurgitation learning. That you believed that learning happened as a result of what a teacher, or curriculum, or test told you was important. That as soon as the homework/project/test was over, that learning was over.

Inquiry is bigger.

Wider.

With inquiry we aren’t just inviting collaboration between disciplines, but also exploring the space between and beyond the disciplines as well.  Inquiry ignites interest and passion.

“People who are curious inquirers have a learning advantage, they will always be able to teach themselves the things they need to know, long after their formal education ends.” (Whiplash, Jeff Howe and Joi Ito)

Every summer I design the framework for our inquiry blocks. I begin with the IB’s PYP questions (because they are brilliant and I have yet to find a topic that doesn’t fall within one of the six questions). With those in mind, I choose books to read, videos to watch, and generally just approach life with curiosity. The only rule: the books/videos/content has to be a little random. In other words, I choose things that I don’t know a lot about, without an agenda about why I chose them, and they can’t have too similar of a theme. For example, this summer I read “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design” by Frank Wilczek, “Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman, “Get Backed” by Baehr|Loomis, “Youthnation” by Matt Britton, “Innovation is a State of Mind” by Jame O’ Loghlin, “Intention” by Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder, “The Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros, “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker, “Ask the Dust” by John Fante, “What is the Bible” by Rob Bell, and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George, “Cooking for Picasso” by Camille Aubray. I also watch copious amounts of TED talk videos and spend an enormous amount of time following random web link bunny trails. Totally random. But when you read things with the 6 inquiry questions in mind, suddenly everything starts to connect and you see things you may not have before. As I read I take a MILLION notes…because I love notebooks and remember things when I write them down. Then when it comes time to actually design the inquiry block, I have this incredible common place book to pull from. Seriously, this is my most happy place of happy places!

Degas said: “Art is not what you see, it is what you help others see.”

I feel like this is the way I spend my summers, immersed in art that helps me see.

This is what I hope for our inquiry blocks, that it would help our students see. To make beautiful connections, and marvel in the wonder of learning.

We’re just getting started into one of my favorite inquiry blocks every year, “How We Express Ourselves.” This year our lens is: There are many different ways to tell a story (primary); Our imagination allows us to express ourselves creatively (Intermediate); Through the arts, people use different forms of expression to convey their uniqueness as humans (Jr. High)

When I read the books above every one of them seemed to seep into this inquiry block. They all had insight and new ways of “seeing.”

As questions come to me, I jot them down. These become our lines of inquiry.

  • Storytelling happens through different mediums including visual arts, words, poems, music, dance, drama, metaphor, photography, icons, math, science.
  • We express our own identity through the medium we choose to tell our stories through.
  • Cultures throughout time have expressed themselves through story.
  • Different types of literature tell different kinds of stories.
  • How are stories told? What is the structure of stories?
  • How do fossils tell a story of the past?
  • Why is sequence an important component of story?
  • What tools do historians use to help them tell a story?
  • How do we distinguish fact from fiction?
  • What are sources of inspiration?
  • What role does perspective play in expression?
  • How can limitations and constraints make us more creative?
  • Are there mathematical formulas that are “beautiful” to the human eye?
  • How do animals and humans receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond in different ways?
  • How do we visualize sound? What is cymatics?
  • How do vibrating materials make sound?
  • Observe and create a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and demonstrate how waves cause objects to move.
  • Perspective and where we find beauty (including through math and science).
  • What cultural artifacts tell us about people who lived in a place and time.
  • In war, what is the significance of destroying art and culture?

You can see how one line of thought leads me down some bunny trails! Look at how many standards this block hits across ALL disciplines. If you, or a student, is particularly passionate about one of those lines of inquiry, it probably gives rise to all sorts of new questions…which is precisely how it works in the classroom.

When I work on the framework of an inquiry block, I’m really just setting the stage where our collective genius can collide over common problems. This is true of teachers and students at Anastasis. We all come with different backgrounds, and histories, and inspirations. The above list represents the connections I made BECAUSE of the different provocations and background that I have to draw on. But we all come with that, both teachers and students.

What results is beautiful and unique to this place and time with these people. We could look at these very same lines of inquiry every year until the end of time and gain new insight and make new connections every time as our experiences evolve and our community changes.

Of course, to help give some guidance, I offer provocations to my staff that will give us some common language and make sense of some of my more *seemingly* random connections.

The provocations for the How We Express Ourselves inquiry block above:

TED Talk: The Beautiful Dilemma of Our Separateness- Sally Taylor talks about finding her place in art.

CONSENSES– The most brilliant game of artistic telephone where each artist expresses the previous artist’s expression in their own favorite medium.

TED Talk: Embrace the Shake- Phil Hansen finds beauty in the limitations and constraints.

TED Talk: Making Sound Visible Through Cymatics– The science and art of cymatics, a process of making sound waves visible.

 

Can you see the depth of learning made possible? Rather than limiting learning with a specified goal, we’ve given students depth. We’ve shown them the beauty in learning.

da Vinci said it best, “Learn how to see, realize that everything connects to everything else.”

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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.

Teachers as Expendables

I am currently reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin, of course I read that through the eyes of an educator and apply it to the world I know.  Here are some thoughts I jotted down as I was reading today.

Schools (and I am talking very generally here based on my experiences) need to stop treating teachers and students like they are nonessential.  When you treat people like they are expendable, they will begin to view themselves that way.  When people can sense they aren’t valued, they will start to act that way.

Unfortunately, schools around the country are devaluing both students and teachers on a regular basis.  When the secretary of education recommends that schools make public whether teachers are doing enough to raise students’ test scores, he is sending the message that teachers are expendable.  When students are expected to read at a certain level because they are seven years old, or taught from a standardized curriculum, by our actions, we tell them they aren’t unique or valuable.

We really shouldn’t be surprised, then, at the state of education.  When people feel like they aren’t valued they will see themselves that way.  They won’t rise to the occasion (very often), they won’t wow us with their innovation.  They will do what they must to get by.  This is happening too often in our schools.

Conversely, when you are in a place where you feel valued and important, you will act in a way that is valuable.  You rise to the occasion and work toward success with creativity and innovative ideas.  You become impassioned.

I know that most teachers work hard every day to make sure that each one of their students feels valued.  But when teachers are treated as if they are expendable, it is hard to muster the enthusiasm to help others believe that they are not.  What Arne Duncan doesn’t seem to understand is that the school system has to be a culture of value.  Everyone within a school must believe that they are an important part of the system, that it just wouldn’t be the same without them.  I’m not sure how he thinks that standardized curriculum, standardized testing, and more data is going to accomplish this goal.  I would think that anyone who has ever spent time with children would know that to get the best out of a child, they have to feel valued.  Good grief, I would think anyone who had any business sense at all would know that to get the best out of your employees you make them feel as if their unique gift is what keeps the place running.

I’m not sure that any of us will get the policy makers to wake up and pay attention to the way they are breaking down the education system by allowing teachers and students to feel expendable.  So what do we do? We stop believing that we are expendable (even at the subconscious level).  We start letting our colleagues know that they are valuable and appreciated for their unique gifts.  We start showing our students that despite what government policy might be mandating, that they are indeed valued.

If feel like you are nonessential, you probably are.  Change your view-point and show your administration, policy makers, parents, and students that you are not expendable.  You are valuable.  When you start to own that, others will too.

(Kudos to schools that are making this decision daily as a school. A few that come to mind at the moment are Van Meter and George Couros who holds an Identity Day at his school so everyone can reveal their value.)