Invite Curious Community

Today has been long and tiring. Starting at 4:50am after about three hours of sleep, my day consisted of first travelling to Vermont and then have the whole second half of the day engrossed in day 1 of the Amplifying Student Voice and Partnership International Seminar hosted by Up for Learning at the University of Vermont.

IMG_0910Like most first days, we started our conference getting to know our community which is always fun! I love networking with new people and reconnecting with those whose paths have crossed with mine before. We started the day with a poem activity where we were given a powerful piece by Margaret Wheatley (featured image) and then asked to pick out a sentence, phrase, and single word that stood out to us in regards to our conference. We then shared with our table and then did a “wave shareout” with our one word to the entire room. I found that if you took the most commonly chosen single words we got an interesting sentence to describe what this gathering is all about:

“We invite a curious community to trust in brave conversations.”

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Personally, I had some good “ah-ha” moments today that are going to frame the next two days for me:

  • Most students don’t just decide one day to researchabout innovative schools, and therefore, they remain unknowing that there is anything besides the traditional system even as a possibility for their education. Yet we know the movement will be strongest if learners are driving the change since, after all, learners are the largest population in a school community. So how might we engage students from traditional school systems who aren’t being supported in thinking about alternative education paths? How do we help these students know what their options are because from my experience when presented with the option of a traditional school versus a learner-centered school, learners almost always choose the later.IMG_0919-1.JPG
  • There is an interesting distinction between student voice, student agency, and student-adult partnership which I haven’t considered before. Students/learners can feel like they have a voice, but that doesn’t mean it’s being heard; students can have agency in their work, but not take ownership of the work. How might we achieve various levels of all of these distinctions of student worth in our everyday learning communities?
  • In education, we often are debating the semantics of what it is that we do in our learning environments. However, perhaps we need to spend more time focusing on why we do it then thinking about how we do it before we start to dive into what exactly it is. With this in mind, I believe I need to spend time with our production team taking a deeper dive into why we do what we do with Trailblazers in order to start exploring what the future may hold in terms of possibilities for growth.

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Old Ideas Brought to Life

I’m a proud advocate of taking time to acknowledge and celebrate the little wins in life. Today I had a double little win party.

First I discovered that I have officially written over 700 blog posts and am celebrating the beginning of my fifth year now of blogging! I mean five years is a pretty long time- it means I’ve been blogging for over a fourth of my entire life.

With the realization of this momentous anniversary, I decided it was time for an upgrade of sorts. Time for me to finally do something I’ve been talking about doing since only a short bit after I started blogging: create business cards.

I’ve been to a number amount of conferences and events in the past five years, and beyond that, I’ve run into dozens of people outside of event situations whom I’ve met and thought, “Well too bad I don’t have a business card to easily give this person all of my information…”

Thus I made it a goal of mine to prototype some business cards this weekend before heading off to the International Seminar in Vermont tomorrow.

I don’t think I realized how much I had been anticipating doing this over the years, but when I finally got them to print correctly I most certainly did a little happy dance and let out a little “YESSSSSS!”

Sometimes it takes a big realization to finally set in motion old ideas, but that doesn’t make those old ideas any less exciting when they finally come to life.

Improv and Show Tunes

I love theater people. Doesn’t matter the age, everyone kind of has the same dramatic vibe.

Today the dance troupe kids put on a performance between the junior troupe and senior troupe while the parents (and me) all watched. It was hilarious and impressive, yet not fully put together all at the same time. There was singing and dancing and lots of improv. Then we played charades Broadway-style which was fabulous even if some of the younger kids didn’t really get how to play… And to finish off the night we played “Heads Up” and “Name that Tune” with TV shows and 70s/80s/90s songs.

Life is always better with a little bit of improv and show tunes.

Summer Projects

Working on a design/project team over the summer can be very challenging. The hardest part is trying to make sure everyone is adhering to deadlines and being able to communicate well with each other even without having consistent times where the team is face to face and without having everyone on the same schedule and sometimes not even the same time zone.

It can be hard enough working on a non-school specific project during the school year while everyone has various assignments and other activities going on, then it seems summer comes and everyone really just wants to take a break which makes it even harder to keep working on a project.

As we get ready for Trailblazers Issue 3 to come out (later this month!), our team has been struggling a little with communication and getting those last tasks done. We did a much better job communicating with our spotlight learners to make sure we got their drafts and edits done in a timely fashion, now we’re just working on those last design edits which can sometimes feel tedious. It’s amazing how all the little changes together make a big difference in quality, and when your lead designer ends up in Japan it can make for some interesting challenges which our team has been working through.

I’ve been trying to brainstorm ways we can make the process of going from working on article edits to design edits smoother because it seems to be what’s gotten us stuck most this year.

For one matter, hopefully, we can finally keep the same platform to create our magazine on because so far each issue has been on a different platform which wastes a lot of time trying to transfer and learn how to work the new platform.

The reason we keep switching platforms is that most high-quality magazine design platforms cost money, or at least the premium version which has the functions we would like costs money. However, at this point in time Trailblazer’s is a non-profit, and no one on our team has had real experience with trying to turn a project into a for-profit or even just experience with raising money to fund a project. We wanted to make sure we were really committed to this project before trying to worry too much about money, but now it seems we’re at the point where we may need to start spending some brain power designing for that challenge. I’m hoping as we get two new members joining us this summer for the coming school year, the enlargened team will allow us to divide up roles in a way to take more time brainstorming this platform challenge. (We’ve already created the roles, now we’re in a process of accepting applications for the team.)

Another thing I’m hoping will help our design process, is to create a “Trailblazers Brand and Style Guide” this way it is easier for every team member to know what fonts, colors, pictures, page layouts, etc. we use in the process of developing each magazine. This way it will make it easier for our future lead designers to know what the standards are for our brand versus where there can be created with the design and will hopefully make the process more efficient of getting the articles into the magazine format.

We have already started to discuss work on that and the goal is that we will have this document ready for the next school year, and therefore, before issue 4 of Trailblazers begins production in the fall.

Despite the current challenges we’ve been facing internally that have been rather stressful as a team leader, I’m really excited for Issue 3 of Trailblazers to finally be published later this month! I know it’s going to be great and I’ve loved seeing how our team has improved efficiency and quality with each new magazine!

It’s Plausible

My mom and I saw the movie “Ready Player One” today and while it was by no means the best movie ever, we both agreed it was pretty good. We had some laughs and some jumps and were forced to think a little which are all respectable things for a movie to make you feel.

If you haven’t heard of this movie, it is essentially a dystopian story about virtual reality. Imagine 2045 where the world is run down and piled high with trash and poverty and whole trailer parks stacked on top of each other. The quality of life is so poor that practically everyone spends most of their time in the virtual reality world of the Oasis where you can do anything and everything and life is like a game. However, when the game creator dies he sets out a challenge for one lucky winner to inherit his share of the company and control of the game, then all of a sudden this becomes a business endeavour. It’s a fight between big business and the people for who will take control of this central part of everyone’s life.

Like I said, the movie itself got pretty cheesy sometimes and wasn’t the most advanced plot development, but the concept of the movie was what was really intriguing. It’s a very plausible scenario when you think about it. With the rate virtual reality is being popularized and the rate in which we’re polluting the Earth, just how far-fetched is it to imagine a world where people are having their time consumed by “living” in a virtual world? It’s kind of scary how some of these dystopian stories become more and more realistic and possible futures every day.

Untapped Potential

This year, in particular, I’ve found myself getting more involved with different high schools around Atlanta that are working on making their school culture learner-centered. With each new connection, I make, I find it more and more odd that there aren’t more connections between different school that are close by to one another.

This isn’t just an Atlanta thing, I’ve heard people from other cities around the country also talk about the disconnect between schools in similar areas.

I wonder if there is some sort of competitive component to where different schools feel like they’re competing for the same kinds of students and families, but in theory, don’t we want to provide learner-centered education for everyone? Each learning environment is still different to meet the needs of different learners even if it the culture has similar values.

I wonder about the day when perhaps an exchange program will happen without needing to go over seas. From my perspective, there is so much untapped potential in terms of potential education partners practically in our backyard who we could learn a lot from.

reMoVe10

After months of data collecting and interviewing, the reMoVe10 team finally had our big presentation to our City of Sandy Springs clients, representatives from Georgia Clean Commute, and a handful of MVPS admin!!

Background

Spark:

No one likes sitting in traffic. It waste time, energy, and money and it is only getting worse each year. Early September of 2016 representatives from the City of Sandy Spring
contacted the Innovation Diploma to partner with us as consultants in a Design Brief in order to achieve the city goal to decrease traffic in the city by 10%.

Goal:

Lead conversations and experiments at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School to decrease traffic in the school community by 10%. Then using MVPS as a small area case study group, develop traffic recommendations for schools in the Sandy Springs area and the city as a whole.

1101161046.jpgPartners:

  • City of Sandy Springs council (Client)
  • Mount Vernon Presbyterian School
  • Georgia Commute Options

Data Collection

The first phase of our work was to better understand our community by learning how and where from people commute to school. In order to do this, we compiled data from our school directory, manually counted cars coming into the school early in the morning, and observed traffic patterns during our morning and afternoon carpool. Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 1.03.34 PM.png

After working with our school’s registrar, we were able to take information we had gathered and develop this visual of where our families come from.

 

unnamed-1.jpgWe also created this info-graphic which we sent out to the MVPS community to gain support and focus group partners for the movement. We learned that we currently have 662 cars coming into MVPS every morning. Based on estimates for the growth of our school, we should have around 770 cars by the year 2020 when our new high school building is finished being built. With this projected growth rate, it’s imperative that we act now to decrease traffic. If we successfully cut traffic down by 10% now, then we will be decreasing the number of future cars by 180 cars, decreasing pollution by 2,730 lbs of CO2, and saving 5,000 minutes of time commuting as a community (based on the average distances families currently travel from in order to get to MVPS).

Focus Group Insights

After collecting numerical data, the reMoVe10 team wanted to reach out to members of the MVPS community to better understand the MVPS carpool process from the primary users. After sending out our info-graphic, we gathered two parent/faculty focus groups to speak to where we discovered that the Lower School carpool line was more congested than the Upper School since less lower school students stay after school for sports and clubs. We then met with two fourth grade groups and two kindergarden groups in order to hear from the students about how they get to their cars in the afternoon.

Here were some of our take aways:

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Next Steps:

 

Removing traffic in an area doesn’t take a revolutionary idea. There are some rather simple things that we can do as a community to decrease traffic. The key is communication and everyone getting passionate and involved in the movement.

The reMoVe10 team is partnering with Georgia Commute Options, a government funded program that promotes taking cleaner routes to school and work by providing incentives and help with finding carpool partners. Our team plans to give presentations to parent and student drivers in the upcoming weeks to get them excited and signed up with the free Georgia Commute Options app that gives members access to these benefits. We then will work with the organization to see how traffic is effected based on the number of people with the app associated with the Mount Vernon community.

The team will also explore more ways to promote alternative travel options in order to decrease the number of cars on the road. We already have a hashtag (#reMoVe10) and several blog posts on our Innovation Diploma website, and will do a deeper dive into other forms of effective mass communication techniques.

Reflection

The reMoVe10 team has come a long way in the past few months (this link goes to my blog posts along the journey). As a team we had various struggles with communication along the way; people would be absent and not notify anyone as to why, people would wonder out of the work space without a reason, people would not answer texts, etc. While this was very frustrating in the moment, we grew a lot with being able to confront these situations. We had many “come to Jesus moments” where we would talk about these problems and establish a new plan, and by the end of the semester everyone was doing a much better job at communicating with only minor hiccups.

It’s really hard to call a fellow teammate out, but when doing real world work, it is a necessary uncomfortably moment. If problems aren’t addressed, then they will keep happening, and that creates an unhealthy work environment. I think one of the places I grew most as a leader on this team was by being able to facilitate these necessary conversations that no one really wanted to have.

Even in the last week leading up to our big presentation we were struggling to bring things together. We realized that there is a lot of empathy work that we could have done earlier in the process. Our focus group meetings happened back to back only a few weeks before our final deadline, and it was great that they happened, but we realized the insights we identified would have been valuable at an earlier point in time. Furthermore, there are more people that we would have liked to talk to and we should have observed carpool more often, and now we’re having to go back and make up for what we really should have done earlier in the process. The jump from researching to empathizing is often the hardest hurdle to get over in my opinion, and our team truly experienced this. It was most evident in our practice pitch we gave two days before the big presentation, that we had some gaps in our project. However, we were able to pull it all together in the final hours and shifted the focus of our presentation to highlight the great work we had done. In every project it’s easy to later identify things you wish you would have done, but that shouldn’t discredit what you did do, and I was really proud of the quality of the presentation we gave in the end. Our clients even said, “This is better that some of the presentations we hear from adults that we pay to do this kind of work!”

A big part of the purpose of our presentation was to just get the right people in the room to make connections between all of the partners we’ve been working with. We achieved this goal better than we could have planned for; there were people still talking about the possibilities our work has brought up for nearly an hour after we thanked people for coming and said we were finished with their time. These conversations made me really excited with where this project could go in the upcoming months.

Our team had originally planned on disbanding after this presentation and not working 100% on this project (though we would do monthly check ins to keep up with the work). However, after the success and momentum the reMoVe10 movement gained after this presentation, we realized that we can’t stop now. The team is still in the process of figuring out who and how everyone will  be involved  next year, but I can guarantee the project will not die with the end of a semester.

 

Dis-Connect

I made a promise to myself what feels like a long time ago to not only blog about the successful things in my life, but to also mention the un-successful moments.

If you only reflect on your successes, then you aren’t learning as much as you could be… You can’t just completely let go of un-successes because then you can’t use them to fuel better actions next time, but you also can’t dwell on them to the point of madness; it’s when you find the balance that you can learn.” – My Un-Success Reflection (The Life of Pinya) 

I wish to honor my previous promise to myself, so here is a story of an un-success of the past few weeks.

For the past few weeks I’ve been working with a team of Innovation Diploma members as consultants for the City of Sandy Springs to decreases traffic at MVPS by 10% (#reMoVe10). The hypothesis is that if we can develop a plan to decrease traffic at our school, then we could create a plan that could be replicated at other schools too. If enough schools decreased their own traffic, then the traffic in Sandy Springs during rush hour times would decrease as well. It’s a lofty goal, but I think we’re on a good path right now.

Our first client meeting went very well two weeks ago; however, the days leading up to that meeting were not so great. Our team has had some major communication problems lately. We’ve done a good job of dividing up responsibilities, but apparently we didn’t do a good job of checking in to make sure everyone was on the same page about why we were doing certain things.

One day I was meeting with a faculty member that has been acting as an external mentor to our team, and when I got back half of our team of 4 was missing. No one knew where they went. We were searching around the school and texting them and then finally we learned that they were out counting cars in the parking lot. We had discussed the value of taking observational data multiple times, so the idea was valid, but not at 10:15 when there isn’t any traffic in and out of the school… Somehow this idea wasn’t communicated well. Moreover, the reason they said they were out there is because they discovered they wouldn’t be able to get a piece of technology working in time for our meeting, so they didn’t know what to do and thought counting cars would be productive.

On the one hand I’m grateful to have a team where members are trying to take initiative and go out and do and observe things rather than always working on a computer; however, this was a major fail-up moment because the data they got from counting cars was information we could have concluded by just sending a quick email to find out how many teachers and students have on campus parking spots, so an entire day was just wasted by half of the team. Furthermore, when one member was asked questions by the facilitators, the member was not able to answer questions about why we were even having a client meeting later that week let alone answer questions about what we were going to talk to them about.

Overhearing this conversation was when it hit me that we really had a problem and part of this is on me.

The team has established that I’m project manager, so this un-success day made me realize that if that’s going to be my role, then I need to do a better job of helping to make sure that everyone understands not only what needs to be done and who needs to do it, but also understand why we are doing it.

I also felt bad because when I later talked to these members about why they thought it would be a good idea to wonder off to count cars without telling anyone, they said they were scared to tell me that they wouldn’t be able to have the tech devise working in time. They had underestimated how difficult the task would be, but they knew the importance of that task, so they were trying to at least get some number so they went out to manually count cars.

I don’t want people to be scared to tell me things, and I’m glad at least that they told me that they were. I tried explaining that I’d never be mad about them not being able to do something based on their skills as long as they were honest about their capabilities upfront so we can plan accordingly as a team. The issue was that they were the only ones with knowledge about the technology since they were working with it, so when they said they could have their experiment up and running by that day, we assumed it would be done. It was frustrating then when the task wasn’t done because for the past few weeks we had been reassured that the timeline was an accurate assessment of when we thought we could have things accomplished by. How do I make it so that people aren’t afraid to tell me when things are not going as planned? I’ve noticed this problem outside of ID too and don’t know what to do about it, because I don’t mean to come off as intimidating but know that I can sometimes according to others.

I’m not really sure if I’m explaining this situation very clearly which is kind of ironic since the whole problem had to do with poor communication between our team. However, at least I can say that we’ve grown some from these hiccups since we’ve learned and improved in some ways.

Our team was able to turn things around before our client meeting, and that went really well! The meeting helped our team we focus and gain clarity in our group understanding of our mission and next steps which was very helpful, plus we impressed our clients which is nice. I hope that my teammates are no longer or at least getting to be less scared to tell me when things aren’t going as planned because I know a team needs to have lots of trust in one another; I don’t know how to help with this yet though. I also think entire team now sees the real importance of being honest and upfront about each of our capabilities that way we don’t have another situation where we essentially waste an entire days worth of work…

At the same time though, we’ve still had a couple instances where teammates will wonder off without telling anyone and not come back for a while, so I know we still have a ways to grow as a team in our communication. This whole post has actually made me realize more-so that our team probably needs a good heart-to-heart conversation, but I’ve never been good about making that happen even when noticing that it needs to; it’s probably the area I most need to grow in terms of responsibilities of a project manager. In school typically the job of bringing a team together to acknowledge dis-connects is done by a teacher or some other adult, and it’s not something you ever get taught despite it being a crucial part of team work. Guess it’s time to learn.

Different Communication

imgres.jpgI’ve talked to dozens of people about “real world skills” and despite all the debating in terms of which words are the best ones to include on this metaphorical list, good communication skills always seems to come up.

You could be the greatest genius this world has ever known, but if you can’t communicate what you know to others, than your knowledge is relatively useless.

Every  job, every aspect of life is going to require communicating things to other people. From describing how you want your hair cut, to proving you solved the worlds  hardest math problem, everything is communicating. There is no one that works 100% independently in our inter-connected global world. At the very least, there is a conversation between a supplier and a consumer.

With the clear demand for good and diverse communication skills, it’s amazing how many people still struggle with communicating. I’ve talked to countless people that say they wish their employees were better communicators, which isn’t surprising since teachers often note that their students can’t all communicate their ideas effectively.

The problem is clearly identified, so now how do we solve it? How might we create better communicators; people who can explain their thoughts in a number of different ways? Because part of being a communicator means you have to be adaptable to working with different types of people. Not everyone understands best from a written essay, or a lecture, or a presentation, or even a prototype. Everyone has a different way they learn best, and thus the best communicators are ones that can teach in different ways.

In school we tend to focus on academic writing, but there are a myriad of other ways to write, teach, and communicate. I for one have never taken an art class since 6th grade other than band. If someone learned best from seeing a drawing, I would be at a loss. And I know plenty of people who can’t send a good email to save their life, which will soon become a large problem for them. Furthermore, besides the alphabet and a few random words, I wouldn’t know how to communicate with a deaf person through sing language what so ever; that makes 70 million people I can’t communicate with past a kindergarden level. Even writing college essays is a huge problem for many students because they aren’t well versed in talking about themselves.

If communication is such an important skill, if we’ve identified we value it so much, it seems essential that we start putting a greater emphasis on learning to communicate in different ways.

The Power of a Card Game

Possibly the most useful style of writing is persuasive writing. If you can master the art of persuasion, then there is a lot you can accomplish. I was thinking about this while writing a draft for an email I will be sending to the upper school faculty at MVPS to try and persuade them into joining Kemps Khaos. Kemps is a card game that I’ve learned, like most of my family, by watching people play at Capon (the family reunion spot in West Virginia). Kemps is a partner card game in which teams compete to get four of a kind and then call “kemps” after their partner does their secret signal.I’ve known how to play for several years, and at the end of 8th grade year, I along with a few other people that knew how to play, ended up teaching most of our grade about the game. The game is a ton of fun, and since then we have been kind of addicted.

At the end of 8th grade I had an idea; “What if we had a tournament with the faculty members at school where the students and faculty members were all partnered up?” A year later, that idea became a reality. A group of around 8 students to begin, myself included, decided to start coming up with how we would present the idea to the teachers. At first it was almost just a joke. We were all calling dibs on which teacher we would want. We had made mock invitations that we called “formally ridiculous” because while they looked very fancy, complete with a wax stamp, the information was written in a very silly fashion. We talked about how we could create t-shirts and even designed our own logo. Then we decided to call it “Kemps Khaos” (I know chaos is spelled with a c really) as a joke off of “March Madness”. After we had fantasying for a while, we finally realized that there was no reason why we couldn’t try to make it actually happen.

We worked out all of the details, and also found other students that we thought might want to play until we had a total of 16 students with at least one person from each grade in the high school. Then we started to unveil our great plan to the teachers. Most of the teachers had never played kemps before, but they said that because we had worked all of the details out so nicely, they couldn’t help but agree to it. Then we taught the teachers how to play and set up the tournament!

Everything went great! We bonded so much with our teachers just by playing these short little games when we had the time. How often do you get to hear your teachers trash talking in Elizabethan English about a card game that they don’t even know how to play? Because for us that actually happened when we were just sending out emails about it! You can only imagine what things happened once the competition actually started.

The idea started just because we were curious how it would turn out. When you mix secret signals and competition, you are bound to get some interesting circumstances. However, once the tournament started, we realized that Kemps Khaos was actually so much more then just an entertaining game. It was serving as a great way for student and teachers to just relax and have fun. We had unintentionally not been able to start until late into 2nd semester, so everyone was pretty stressed about the end of the year. Kemps games were really helping to relieve everyone of that stress, and also create some great bonds between the students and faculty.

During school you are always being told the importance of getting along with others and being able to work well with different people in your grade. The teachers are also told they need to have strong grade level teams, and need to work as a unit to help best benefit the students. What about the student-teacher relationships though? What about cross-grade relationships? How can we help strengthen those relationships? How might we make a strong MVPS Upper School team?

I have discovered that something as simple as a card game can help bridge the gap between students and faculty.

This is why this year we took things to the next level. Kemps Khaos is now a club, and anyone in the high school can join! Planning has been taking place since the beginning of the school year, and once this email has been sent (I’m waiting for some feedback from others before sending it), the teachers will finally be involved and the games can begin! Every time I start thinking about Kemps Khaos I get really excited for all of the fun we will have! It’s amazing how this one card game has really made such a difference in my high school experience.