Do you want to form an alliance with me?

In March of 2010, I wrote a blog post that ended up connecting me and amplifying good in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, the title of that post: Do you want-to form an alliance-with me? (Best when spoken like Dwight’s character in the TV show the Office…American version).  Anyway, it was this blog post that originally showed me the power of connection. This bloggers alliance introduced me to some of my very best education friends around the world. The alliance is the reason I fell in love with inquiry, the reason that I was able to see education from new vantage points. It made 2010 an exceptional year of growth and learning. Today, I invite you to start a new alliance with me, allow me to explain below (Originally posted on KT’s Blog):



It was 2010, when I first saw “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson on YouTube. Soon after, I’d read his book by the same title. For me, this video will always be titled “When Hunches Collide,” because it is this idea that has so resonated with me. It was this moment of pivot when I recognized the power of collective intelligence. In school we learn about a lot of incredible characters in history. Inventors, explorers, accidental geniuses. All of their stories are told as if they are in a vacuum. They seem super human, like they possess something spectacular, and rare. With this video was the recognition that nothing happens in isolation, rather, it is when ideas have the opportunity to collide with other ideas that big things happen. Innovation isn’t about solo genius, it’s about collective genius.
I saw this first hand following this blog post “When Hunches Collide.” Inviting others to dream with me, voicing the impossible suddenly made it possible. Collisions started happening regularly and suddenly it felt like everything was connecting. Starting a school wasn’t something that I thought I would do. I didn’t have the resources, the experience, the courage. But when you put your ideas out there, when you invite the collision of ideas, things suddenly feel more doable. A tribe rallies, makes you believe in impossible things. A year after writing this post about hunches colliding, I was months into running a school that I founded. I was seeing my dream realized. I was seeing that innovation is actually collective problem solving with those in my tribe adding their unique experience and point of view. Injecting honesty into my dreaming.
In the day-to-day of running a school, things become much more practical, much more one-foot-in-front-of-another. I find myself doing the things that must be done and my dreaming becomes much more localized. In the summer months, I have a different cadence to my days. My to-do list is as long as ever, but the different pace gives me the room to let my mind wander, read the book that I’ve been inching through at a better pace. Each year, I start a new notebook. A “common place” book where I write down quotes I come across that I want to remember, take notes on the books I am reading, and let my mind wander. These notebooks are always at the ready. As I was writing some quotes and thoughts in this year’s notebook, it struck me that I don’t often go back through the notebooks and re-read my thoughts. I guess I just like knowing they are there if I need them. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading through my notebooks from the last 6 years (back to the start of Anastasis). All of those things that inspired me along the way were once again packing a powerful punch. How could I have captured all of this and not gone back to remember?!
It was through this process that the idea for KT’s Place was born. I needed to unleash some of these ideas, give them space where the hunches that I was having could collide. I wanted a place where I could extend the invitation to solve problems together. A place where your gifts, and talents, and worldview could collide with mine and others. A place where I remember that I shouldn’t expect to do any of this in a vacuum. Know that this is a place of willful naivete. This is a place where I am choosing to close my eyes to the thought that these dreams are impossible. I’m impatient to see dreams realized (mine and yours!). When we work together, possibility exists that did not exist before. That is powerful!
I believe that:
  • We are better/stronger/braver together than apart.
  • We all have unique gifts, experiences, and worldview that offer important perspective and nuance when they come together.
  • We can work together to spread and amplify good.
  • People who know who they are and living ‘in flow’ are the happiest and most fulfilled in life.
  • Sharing > Hoarding/Hiding
  • We should have a bias toward action.
  • My skills are limited.
  • More beauty and good should exist in our world.
  • We are better served sharing ideas than protecting them.


There is nothing really special about KT’s Place, I’m just setting the stage where we can unleash our collective genius around common problems. So, there you go. That is what this site is all about, sharing crazy ideas and giving them a public place where they can collide with your genius. I’ll start blogging here about each of the projects listed, give you the back story to the idea, the inspiration that is spurring me on along the way. Each will come with an invitation for you, what do you have to contribute? Who might you know that I should know? You certainly don’t have to wait for these posts to add your 2cents, this is a place where you can contribute ALL the time!
Additionally, if KT’s Place, or one of my hunches has inspired something you are working on, or you have a totally new hunch of your own that you would like to open to collisions, let me know and I’ll share it on the “Fellow Dreamers” page.

Making FOMO our motivator for change

“We think someone else- someone smarter than us, more capable, with more resources- will solve the problem. But, there isn’t anyone else.” – Regina Dugan

You may feel ill equipped, like you don’t know what to do, or how to do it. But one thing that I’ve learned in starting (and running) Anastasis Academy: As you act and move, what to do, and how to do it, becomes more clear. Every day you will see things you haven’t before, and pretty soon a direction takes shape and it starts to make more sense. You have to move!

Too often we convince ourselves that we are stuck. Fear. Indecision. Policies. Mandates. These are all of the excuses we use on a regular basis not to act. I’m the first to tell you that I’ve used all of these excuses as reasons to stay where I am. Move anyway.

One of the greatest lessons that I learned from my parents was to step back and look at a problem from a different perspective, a more optimistic one. Quit focusing on what could happen if you act, and start asking yourself what will happen if you don’t act? It was this sense of urgency I felt when starting Anastasis Academy. It was a different kind of fear, rather than fear of the repercussions of my action, I feared what might happen if I didn’t act. Where would my students end up? What would happen if something didn’t change? My students couldn’t wait for me to be braver, they couldn’t wait until my school decided to change policies. Kids give you a built in sense of urgency because they keep growing up. It was the fear of what might happen if I didn’t act that made me start moving.

If you had asked me any of the years prior to actually starting a school if I thought I would do it, I would have given you a resounding NO! I had every excuse in the world not to move: I had no idea how to start a school, I had no money, where would the students come from, what if my ideas didn’t work, what if my best effort wasn’t enough? On and on the excuses went. Something happens when you open yourself up to possibility of movement. You begin to act in very small ways. For me, that was blogging. I thought I would share my ideas here, and others might grab onto them and put them in action. That infinitesimal, ‘safe,’ movement led to more movement. People started cheering me on from the sidelines, convincing me that I might be able to do it. Momentum breeds momentum. I’m fairly certain Newton’s Laws of Motion are true in emotional sense as well as a physical sense.

When you take those first steps into the unknown, it feels incredibly vulnerable and like a daunting task. Pretty soon as you move, the universe suddenly feels as though it is conspiring to make it so. I actually believe that it is our own awareness that shifts. Rather than focusing on what keeps us stuck, we begin to see events, connections, and supporters that we didn’t notice before. We see a pathway forward because by acting, we take away the fear to try. When we open ourselves to a new perspective, we begin to see all moments as key moments. We start to view set backs, and inconveniences, and frustration as guidance rather than road blocks. (I’m still learning the art of this part.)

It is often only in hindsight that I see how events in my life led me to this moment. As I was pushing forward, often the path didn’t make sense. It felt messy and wandering. It often felt wrong and like I was making my way through the dark.

We love TED talks, and to hear people’s stories of success, because we can see how all the pieces fit together. It feels neat and succinct and like it was the plan for the beginning. In reality, the process is always messy. It is fraught with the unknown. Hindsight gives us the ability to see where the common thread was, but believe me when I tell you…I honestly didn’t know that a blog post would lead me to start a school. I didn’t see how an edublogger alliance in 2009 would impact my journey so greatly. I was just doing the next thing in front of me. Life events influence the events that come after them. A thread seems to link them together. Of course, this depends on what we choose to give importance to and how we will act in the midst of them.

We can’t be passive in our pursuit of change in education. We can’t merely hope or voice that things should be different. We have to act. Move. Take the first step even when we aren’t sure where the journey will end up. Rather than honing in on the possibilities for failure, the voice in our head that tells is all the bad things that could happen, place your fear in what might happen if you don’t try. Act on FOMO (fear of missing out). There will be bumps in the road, it is still life, but at least we will be moving!

I’m currently working on what it means for me to continue to move as I look forward to year 6 of Anastasis Academy. Here is where that movement is happening: Kt’s Place. Join me!



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?


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.

Hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and again to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.”

-Bertrand Russell

This. This quote is one of my new very favorite quotes ever! This is where innovation lives. In the question marks.

Too often in education, we talk about innovation as if it is something that we’ve created and something that can be owned. We talk about innovation in steps and processes and we make it into something it isn’t. And so when we talk about education reform, the conversation gets centered on the wrong things: rigor, standards, tests, Race to the Top!, No Child Left Behind!, technology, better teachers, more tests. Things that end up actually adding layers between us and what we fight for: students. But educational innovation doesn’t live in any of these.

Innovation is a shift in mindset. It is hanging the question mark on things taken for granted.

5 years ago, I started a school fueled by questions. Surrounded by an incredible team, we search for the question marks on those things that we take for granted. In the process, we’ve found that questions are the catalyst of innovation. Questions have the unique ability to disrupt the status quo and force us to think differently. This is important for our students, we believe that this world needs citizens who are self-learners, who are creative and resourceful, and who can adapt and adjust to change. This is also important for us as educators. We need the questions. In a system that seems to value the answer above all, I’m proud to say that Anastasis teachers are those who value the questions. Innovation seems to thrive in this environment of “what if?”. Answers end the process of inquiry, yet this is what our schools have largely been built on.

At Anastasis we are constantly asking, now that we know-what is possible now? We live for those ‘what if?’ moments! These ‘what if?’ moments are our slow hunches that give rise to something bigger. We go through the process of asking: Why? (Why is this the way it it?), What if? (What if it were different?), How? (How could it be different?), what solutions might there be?.

Our assessment at Anastasis is testament to this process of questioning.

Why? Why does assessment look like it does? Why do we judge students on a moment of time? Why have we decided that these things that we assess are the MOST important things? Why are we okay with assessing students this way? Why do stakeholders accept this as a picture of a child?

What if? What if assessment wasn’t based on moments in time? What if we looked at the whole child? What if we changed the guidelines? What if assessment helped students grow? What if assessment could reveal to stakeholders where students are in their learning journey? What if report cards were more comprehensive? What if assessment wasn’t the end point?

How? How do we show stakeholders that a student is more than the few data points we collect? How do we use assessment for growth? How do we determine what should be assessed? How should a student who leaves our school look? How do we know if a student is ‘succeeding’? How will we share with other schools? How could we offer something meaningful?

What solutions can we come up with? What do we want students to leave us to look? What are the words we want to describe them? What can we do to reveal learning journey and forward progress? What do we do to help others understand the bigger picture? What do we do to help students understand the bigger picture?

When we went through this process as a staff at Anastasis, we began with the end in mind. What do we want students to look like on leaving our school? You know what never came up? Scores. Grades. Specific content knowledge that would deem a child ‘educated.’ Instead we came up with words like: inquirer, problem solver, risk-taker, communicator, compassionate, responsible, thinker, mathematician, scientist, self-aware, writer, reader, creator, connector, historian, geographer, respectful, open-minded, service-minded, healthy, reflective, resourceful, responsible, innovative, researcher, discerner, aware, logical.

These words are vastly different from what we generally see listed on a report card. Different from what we generally value (according to what we measure).

This was the launching point for our assessment system. The questions led to innovation.

Our report card looks like this:

UpGrade Anastasis Academy Report Card

We know it looks different, it should. It started with a question mark. It evolves every year.

Innovation doesn’t come as the result of declaring that innovation is needed and putting a plan in place to reach a predetermined outcome. Innovation comes in hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted.

Neglecting Value

Recently I found a new non-educational blog that I am really enjoying called Be Deviant. The Blog author, Justin Wise, recently wrote a post called 3 Steps to Make People Feel Valued. In the post, Justin mentions a book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwarz. After reading Justin’s post, I was eager to read the book too. I am only a few chapters in, but haven’t been able to get Justin’s post out of my mind because it relates so closely to the other posts I have written recently on Dreams of Education. I hope Justin doesn’t mind that I piggy back on his thoughts as they relate to education.

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working-Tony Schwartz

How we feel profoundly influences how we perform.  Feeling devalued pushes us into the Survival Zone-which increases our fear, distracts our attentions, drains our energy, and diminishes the value we’re capable of creating…Perhaps no human need is more neglected in the workplace than to feel valued.

Schwartz thoughts are geared toward the workplace here but how many of us could replace workplace with school environment?  There is a culture in most schools of devaluing students and educators.  That culture may not be overt but it is felt in subtle ways every time a students or teachers self-worth is based on a single standardized test.  It is felt when students aren’t treated as the individuals that they are, but are instead taught from scripted curriculum and moved from grade to grade because it is the next step and not necessarily because they are ready for it.  It is felt when politicians make asinine decisions like that schools make public whether teachers are doing enough to raise students’ test scores.  It is felt when merit pay is discussed as if the only reason schools are failing is because teachers don’t make enough money to do their job better.  It is felt when a student walks into a classroom and sees the utilitarian rows of desks and moulded plastic chairs that we ask them to sit in for 6 hours a day.  Schools neglect the human need to feel valued.  What results are schools that act out of places of fear, strapping teachers and students down even more so that they will perform on the test (forget learning).  It is no wonder that teachers are drained and may only last 3 years in the profession.  It is no wonder that students attentions are distracted and they do what they must to get by.  The value that students, teachers, and administrators are capable of creating wanes because they aren’t being valued.

In his post Justin offers three ways to value others, I’m using his three as a rough outline.

1.  Let people know what they bring to the table.

For students this means helping students find what Sir Ken Robinson terms The Element.  Tell your students what abilities you see in them.  Be specific.  I had a fifth grade teacher who told me once that I was a beautiful writer.  I never knew that about myself.  I didn’t generally enjoy writing at school because no one had ever appreciated it before.  As I came to learn, I quite like writing.  Don’t forget to let students tell you what they bring to the table.  The school day just doesn’t allow ample opportunities for us to discover all of our students gifts, so let them tell you about their passions, let them show you where they think their abilities lie.

For teachers and administrators this means recognizing what your colleagues do that is unique and valuable.  We may assume that our colleagues know what value they add to the school environment.  Tell them anyway.  Making someone feel valued means that we recognize that they are valuable and letting them know it.  If you aren’t telling your colleagues what you value about them they will start to believe that what they offer isn’t valuable.  Don’t let that happen.

2. Give Specific Feedback

For students this means that when you grade something they have spent time on, you take the time to let them know what specifically was good about it or needed work.  There is nothing more frustrating than spending hours working on something and then receiving a letter grade at the top.  What does that mean?  Giving specific feedback shows our students that we value the time they spent on an assignment or project.  It shows them that we value them enough to spend our time reflecting on what they have done.  When we do have to correct or offer a negative comment, it will be received from a much different place.  Instead of thinking “they have no idea how hard I worked on that and all they do is criticize me;” they may start to view the criticism for what it is, correction to help them grow.  Giving specific feedback makes you more than a teacher, it makes you a mentor and someone who disciples.  Discipleship is a lost art that needs to be reintroduced in the classroom.

For teachers and administrators this means offering thoughtful advice and encouragement.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  Unless you are limited to 140 characters, specific feedback will always make people feel more valuable.  Being specific lets others know that you were actively attending to what you observed and that you appreciated it enough to elaborate beyond the “atta boy”.  If you are an administrator that is in the position of observing teachers, make sure that you offer initial feedback as well as specific follow-up feedback.  As a teacher, there is nothing worse than being observed by your boss only to have them leave without saying anything and offering an “it was a really good lesson” a few weeks later.  Give me immediate feedback with your initial reactions and then follow it up with more specific feedback.  Because I feel valued, I am more likely to take any advice you have to heart and work on implementing it.

3.  Celebrate the people around you.

We don’t celebrate our students enough.  We don’t let them know how much we are rooting for them, how much we want the very best for them.  Do something extraordinary and unexpected for your students.  In my classroom this meant giving them a “free day” where they could show me what neat technology they were using and act as the teacher.  Extraordinary doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to demonstrate that we value our students.  I had an exceptional third grade teacher.  Every once in a while she would hold a classroom celebration where we got to eat lunch with her IN the classroom.  She made this a really big deal, fun music, special games, and ice cream sandwiches at the end.  When we asked her why we were celebrating she would let us know how proud she was of the way we were growing and learning, so much so that she wanted to celebrate it.  This is the same teacher who would leave us special notes of encouragement in our desk (on purchased funny Hallmark cards), sent me a birthday card for two years after she was my teacher, and encouraged our parents to write us notes throughout the year.  She knew how to make us feel celebrated.  It doesn’t have to cost money, it just needs to be demonstrative.

For teachers and administrators this means going out of your way to celebrate them.  If you are an administrator, gift your teachers with an extra hour of planning throughout the year, stop in the classroom and take over so they can go to the bathroom, bring them a cup of their favorite coffee.  If you are a teacher let other teachers know they are celebrated, leave them a note of encouragement, slip a handful of chocolate on a long day, leave them flowers for no reason.  Celebrate every accomplishment of every teacher.  If someone has started a blog, that is cause for celebration, did someone try a new project or tech tool in the classroom? That is cause for celebration!

This is where Justin finished his list but I have to add one more.

4. Change the environment.

Environment can make us feel valued, for my complete thoughts on why, read my post Beauty Matters.

Ask your students what they would like the classroom to look like, and then let them help you make it special for them.  Classroom furniture is SO impersonal and factory feeling.  Think about how the arrangement of your classroom can change the feel. In high school I had a teacher who lined his walls with desks, they were not to be used as desks but as surfaces to display student work and achievements.  The rest of the room was completely open.  Many times we would sit in a circle of chairs, but he let us work the way we wanted to.  By the end of the year students had donated couches, bean bag chairs, and lamps to make the room feel more comfortable.  Everyone looked forward to that class because it was such a welcome break from the rows in every other classroom.

If you are a teacher or administrator, create a place that is just for relaxing.  Teachers lounge 2.0.  Decorate it with art, add a CD player, offer magazines and “real” chairs.  Make it comfortable and aesthetically appealing.  We all need a place to escape to sometimes, give teachers that place.  Let teachers have ownership in how the space looks.  Beauty matters, it is important and it sends the message that people are valued.

As it turns out, showing people they are valued isn’t hard, it just takes a conscious effort.  Let’s transform our schools into places where everyone who walks in the building feels valued.

Apple Does it Right

I just finished reading and commenting on “Why I’d Rather Have a ‘Limited’ iPod/iPad in My Classroom Than a Netbook” over at Mr. Keenan’s blog, Mobile Devices in Education.  The past few posts on Dreams of Education have been about making school a place where students and teachers know they are valued.  In “Teachers as Expendables” I talked about the way that students and teachers are treated in a school and why that matters.  Last night I wrote “Beauty Matters” and talked about how aesthetics in the school building can show students that they are valued and special and let them know that learning is important.  In Mr. Keenan’s post he talks about a new student who came to his class and was amazed that they were given an iPod to learn with.  He says, “Students come into my class and are amazed that they are given something they love to use, and taught how to use it effectively for learning. More than the novelty of it for them, is the fact that educators are starting to understand that we can fit learning into their world, instead of forcing them to conform to our ‘educators paradigm’.”  While I agree with Mr. Keenan’s assessment of the use of the iDevices in the classroom, I think there is more going on here.

Apple products are different because they evoke emotions, they make you feel privileged, special even.  When you use an Apple device you immediately understand the incredible thought and design that went into the product.  You get the sense that it was created especially for you, the way you work and think.  While netbooks are handy because of what they do, they are utilitarian.  There is nothing that feels overly unique or special about them.  You just don’t get the same feeling when you use a netbook.  Apple products don’t feel as if they got rushed through production and a factory line, with little thought given to design, to get set on a shelf in Walmart.  Apple knows that good design is worth the extra time and energy, when you use a device you get this sense.

I believe that Apple devices are ideal for education, not just because of what they allow students to do and create, but also because of the way they make them feel.  When you give students something that is beautiful and well designed they are going to feel special and valued.  They are going to know that the device chosen for them was done from a thoughtful place.  They will have the perception that their education is valued because we didn’t skimp on the device we gave them to save a few dollars.  Fans of Apple love the product for more than what it does, we love what it represents, we love the thoughtfulness that went into them.  When I had a Dell, I thought nothing of selling it and trading up a year later when it had started to cause more problems than it was worth.  It is different with my Apple devices.  From the moment you open the box it feels like an experience.  Even the packaging is well designed and thought out.  There is an immediate recognition that attention was given to the product.  The device doesn’t come with owners manuals and instructions on use, it doesn’t need them because it is waiting, ready to be used the way that you would expect.  When you turn the device on you aren’t bombarded with advertisements for other products, you get right in and you use the device. So, when the next magical device comes out, there is a hesitation to let the old iDevice go. Whether students are cognizant of all of these emotions or not, they are there.  It may be subconscious but when a student is given an iDevice, they feel gifted and worthy.

Steve Jobs gets criticized for his assertion that his devices are “magical”, but when you see a student gather around an iPad, you too begin to appreciate that there is something magical there.  When I first brought my iPad to school and set it on my desk, students immediately flocked around, asking questions and wanting to interact with it.  A few weeks earlier I was testing out some new netbooks and had 3 lined up, not one student stopped to look at them or ask what they were for.

I’ll leave you with one last thought, have you ever had a friend loan you something that instantly made you feel trusted, special, and worthy?  Maybe you needed to borrow a car and instead of handing you the keys to their teenagers Dodge Neon they gave you the keys to their new BMW.   Don’t you instantly feel valued?  Maybe you dropped in to see a friend and instead of offering you a glass of water they took the time to mix up a special drink or open an expensive bottle of wine.  Apple devices do this, they let kids know that they are worthy and they make them feel like what they do in the classroom matters.

Beauty Matters

Why are schools such uninspiring spaces? They have become sterile places that use ordinary materials, flourescent lighting, and, generally speaking, do not inspire greatness.  They are run of the mill and feel more like prisons than anything else (I know I am being overly dramatic, but this is my blog and I am exercising that freedom).   What message does that send to students?  Do these ordinary spaces make them feel like education is valued by the community, or like it is a necessary evil like the DMV?  Do our school buildings send the message that we value our students? Our teachers?  I would argue that our schools paint a very different picture.  Most schools across America (I can’t speak to other places in the world) give the feeling of a factory.  Don’t get me wrong, teachers have prettied them up with bulletin boards and student work, but the overall feeling inside a school is that it is a temporary space that we are moving students through.  The tables in the cafeteria fold up, the desks are meant to out last a nuclear bomb, and the chairs are uncomfortable uniform plastic that can be wiped down easily.  Nothing about most schools makes you feel special, or like you might like to sit down and read a book or learn something there.  The only thing most schools inspire is how to tell time so students can count the minutes until they can escape for the day.  Think about it, the majority of schools in the US don’t look much different from when you were in school.  Even when they are remodeled, the feeling of the building doesn’t change all that much.  How many of you remember thinking “I wish I could go back to my fourth grade classroom and just curl up with a good book?” *Crickets*  Me too, I would not choose to go sit and read in my fourth grade classroom for anything.

I don’t think this was always the case, it seems to me that there was a time where the architecture of a school mattered, where schools were beautiful places because education was prestigious and important.  The architecture of the building mattered because a message was being sent that this was an important place to be.  I see very few schools that invoke a feeling of importance.  Even if the outside of the building is a beautiful space, as soon as you walk through the hallways you know this is, without a doubt, a school.  What if our schools were beautiful again?  What if we used the school building to show our students, teachers, community that learning is valued, that what happens in a school is special and inspired?  What if schools were more than just a place for students to learn, but were also places that the community wanted to come and learn?  What if the school was a place you might like to go sit and read?

I think that beauty does matter, I think that when you sit somewhere that is aesthetically pleasing it makes you want to stay a while and inspires you.   I think that if you have a cozy place to read, you are more likely to enjoy reading.  It is all about the experience of reading, the experience of learning.  What is the first thing we all say on a cold rainy day, “I wish I could stay in bed all day and read a good book.”  Anyone want to go sit at school and read a good book?  No.  Why? Because it is uninspiring, it is uncomfortable, and worst of all it sucks the joy right out of the reading.  Bookstores and Starbucks are popular places to sit and work because we enjoy the experience of sitting and working there.

Last year, I did a year-long project with my students.  I asked them to describe their dream school to me; if school could be anything, look like anything, feel like anything, what would it be?  You know the first thing every one of them would change?  The aesthetics of the building.  Most of them wished for spaces that looked more like Googleplex or Pixar.  They wanted spaces that felt creative and fun.  They wanted piano stairs and lunch tables that looked like the periodic table of elements.  Not one of them wanted chairs.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the $578 million school that has been built-in LA (yes, that is one school).  It is the costliest school in the nation and it is incredible.  It looks like a place you would want to spend time.  Just because a school is beautiful doesn’t mean that the learning there will be better, but it will show students that education is worth spending money on.  It will make students and teachers want to spend time there.  It will send a message to the community that learning is important.  For that reason, beauty matters.

Today I read a blog post by Sparky Teaching on why school environments matter, there is a beautiful poem about why environments matter that has been transformed into a video.  I recommend you take a look at it!  I also got my copy of American School and University today, it is their special edition that comes out once a year on Educational Interiors.  The schools are beautiful, there are some truly innovative things being done, but I am a little disappointed that the school still hasn’t been completely re-imagined.  The classrooms still have desks, there is still a board of some type at the front of the classroom.  Can’t we do better?  Can’t we take a hint from Google and Pixar and do a complete rethink?

Here is my re-imagination of a school:

  • Light! Why don’t schools have more natural light?  Why in the world do we still use fluorescent lights (seriously, no one looks good in that lighting, we all look like the living dead under fluorescent lights!)  Why don’t we have beautiful pendants and mood lighting in the library that makes it feel like a cozy place to read?
  • Flexible learning spaces.  I really like that I get to choose where I get to sit and work as an adult (at least when I am home).  When I was a kid my favorite place to work was on the floor on my stomach.  I hated sitting at a table to work, probably because I had sat at an uncomfortable desk all day at school.  I really liked a particular spot in my hallway where our ceiling was tall, there was a lot of natural light, and all of the architecture of our house met.  It felt special, my spot. We need spaces all over the school where students can go and work, then we need to give them the freedom to work there.
  • Libraries that feel more like bookstores.  I don’t know about you but the bookstore is one of my all time favorite places to be.  I love the smell of the books, the comfortable chairs scattered between bookshelves in little nooks, the dark woods.  I want my libraries to display books the way a bookstore does, advertising them to me, enticing me to read them.  I want my elementary library to feel like the kid section at Barnes and Nobel.  Like I have just fallen through a rabbit hole and right into the middle of a story.  What if school libraries were connected to the community library, housed in the same building but separated for security?  What if all of the community came to the school to learn and to read?  What if students saw the love of reading first hand?
  • Cafeterias, yuck! Why do all cafeterias make me want to hold my nose and gobble my food as quickly as possible so that I can escape outside?  Why don’t cafeterias look more like a 5 star dining experience?  Why don’t we use the dining experience at school to teach kids how to share a meal?  Why don’t we have family style meals where kids put their napkins in their laps, pass food around the table, ask to be excused when they are finished?  We take these niceties for granted as adults but not all kids have those experiences at home to teach them.  Most kids eat in front of the TV, in between after school activities, or by themselves as mom and dad rush around.
  • Finishes- The finishes of a school are SO bad. That awful ugly carpet and linoleum floor combination, cinderblocks, dated brick, and GRAY.  Uninspiring, depressing, prison like.  With the technology of today you can’t tell me that laminate wood flooring wouldn’t hold up just as well…there must be a better solution!  Bring in some natural materials that reflect the place where the school is.  I’m in Colorado, let’s see some beautiful rock, and wood, and color.  Let’s put in big windows that let in plenty of light and take advantage of whatever view is available.
  • Art- Let’s add art to our building, real art.  Many schools took advantage of the Picturing America collection in their schools, let’s frame them beautifully and put them on display prominently in the building.  Let’s make it feel like an art gallery.  There is a school in the School and University this month (Rochester Institute of Technology) that has a gorgeous round glass enclosed art gallery room.  The glass has quotes etched on it and paintings can be seen no matter where you are in the building.  There are study areas and places to sit in the gallery.  Every school should have an area so beautiful and inspiring.

    As much as I love decorating bulletin boards can we get rid of them?  I would much rather see student work displayed in a nice frame that makes it feel special and appreciated, decorating the halls, the classrooms, the cafeteria, the office, and library.

  • Outdoor spaces- Schools should have courtyards full of life.  They should have gardens that are cared for by students, places to sit, labyrinths to walk around, fountains, and tables to eat at.  (My thoughts on gardens is a post within itself.)
  • Music- Hallways, cafeterias, and shared spaces should be filled with beautiful music that speaks to the soul.  Kids don’t get enough classical in their cartoons any more, let’s give it to them in their schools instead.

Have you ever been in a really beautiful space that just makes you want to sit and soak it in?  For me that usually happens in nature but it also happens when I am surrounded by art, incredible architecture, or any kind of good design.  Schools should be that place.  Creativity should flourish in there.

I’ll leave you with a TED Talk by Bill Strickland who shares my philosophy that beauty matters, the piano is a little distracting (a bit loud) but the message is well worth it!

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.)