Traditional but Good?

I finished reading “Whatever it Takes” and I found it truly fascinating because it challenged a lot of my thoughts on the education system. It’s hard to argue that the Promise Academy isn’t a wonderful thing: it’s educating children in poverty and helping them get into college by staying on grade level. However, Canada’s primary measurement of success is entirely based on standardized testing. Kids are drilled for the test. There are early morning classes and afterschool classes and even Saturday classes all aimed at further test prep. The book talks about how test prep during the school day started to squeeze out time meant for things like the arts and projects and physical activities and the biggest supporter of these programs, the first middle school principal, Terri Grey, was eventually fired because her priorities didn’t align with preparing students for the test. 

This method of schooling goes against pretty much everything I’ve come to believe about education. I think assessment is important – this is how we get feedback and measure progress – but, the traditional methods of school assessment, such as grades and standardized tests, are no longer measuring the right outcomes of schooling. To truly be prepared for college and beyond in today’s world, a student needs more than the ability to memorize information and control anxiety and focus long enough to take a four-hour long test. Students need to be critical and creative thinkers that know how to solve complex problems on diverse teams. They need to know how to network, present, research, listen, empathize, and take agency just as a start. These skills are not measured on standardized tests, so if you only teach to the test, how do you develop all of these other skills? I don’t think it’s possible. As Grey hinted at, these are two very different education paradigms that would be paradoxical to co-exist. 

Sure, soft skills were mentioned from time to time in “Whatever it Takes.” It seemed certain teachers tried to incorporate soft skills in their classroom, but these were often minor lessons about being polite and talking and listening in a professional manner, and these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of important soft skills to know. There was no mention of collaboration or giving presentations or complex problem-solving or anything to that caliber. 

Now I understand that, as a new charter school, Promise Academy had a duty to perform. They had to do well on standardized tests in order for the city to let them continue with their charter. Furthermore, while I don’t think standardized tests should be the ultimate measurement of success, I can’t deny that they do help measure basic knowledge (ignoring the elements of test anxiety and being distracted, etc). For the students in Harlem attending Promise Academy’s Middle School, the vast majority were below grade level. I can understand how it might be hard to think beyond, “We need these kids at grade level on these tests,” and going into testing bootcamp mode is one solution to this problem. It’s hard to spend time on projects and developing soft skills when there is the hugely apparent obstacle of kids lacking basic math and reading skills. I can empathize with this train of thinking, but I can’t accept that teaching to the test is the best method for preparing students for college and beyond even for kids who have “fallen behind.” But I also can’t deny that Canada was successful. His methods got underperforming kids up to standard and even off to college. 

That in itself is still pretty remarkable and that’s exactly why this book has been challenging for me to read. It’s made me wonder: how can a school that to me is focusing on all the wrong things, also be doing so much good? And while struggling with this question for past few days, I think I’ve finally come to an answer: it’s because traditional schooling is not inherently bad. Traditional schools can still help kids learn, be a safe environment, be supportive, help kids get to college and be a place alum are proud to come home to. Traditional schooling isn’t all bad, it’s just that it needs an update – the core principals of our education system haven’t changed in the past century since it’s founding, but we live in a very different world now. 

Our world requires more of employees now, like the soft skills previously mentioned. We’ve learned that our students can do more now, like contribute on community projects no matter how young they are. Our colleges expect more now, like participation in the arts, extra projects, and sports. “Whatever it takes” has made me realize that most of the time when I’ve thought about learner-centered education, I’ve a – mostly been discussing high school students, and b – not given a lot of thought to educating underperforming students. But most of all, this book has reminded me why it can be so hard to convince skeptics of learner-centered education; it’s because some traditional schools are in fact doing good for society, but the thing is, now it’s time to be doing even more.

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Be Humble, Curious, and Ask Questions

The anticipation of knowing your life is about to change is incomparable. 

I am a rising third-year business major concentrating in Leading and Managing Human Capital while also getting a certificate in social psychology. I hope to go into the field of transformative education which is why I wanted to participate in the Leadership for Social Good Study Abroad Program because I believe social entrepreneurship is the key to re-imagining our education system. 

It’s been one week since the program began and I’ve already had my expectations surpassed beyond what I could have imagined. And we haven’t even gone abroad yet!

We’ve spent this week on the Georgia Tech campus as sort of a prolonged orientation and introduction to social entrepreneurship, and I’m actually really grateful that we’ve had this time pre-traveling to Eastern Europe. This past week we have gotten a chance to discover more about what social entrepreneurship really means and have some heavy discussions around the social sector, nonprofits vs for profits, and what to expect while living in Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary for 8 weeks to study and then intern with a nonprofit in Budapest. This past week has also been a great opportunity for us to meet our cohort and start getting to know each other and work together some before dealing with all the craziness of actually being in a different country. 

At this point in the program, we have already had multiple guest speakers, been on a site visit (with another coming up on our last day in Atlanta), watched numerous TED Talks (by Dan PallottaMelinda French GatesHans RoslingErnesto SirolliMichael PorterRobert RedfordJessica Jackley, and others), had numerous stimulating conversations and debates, completed a few group activities, and explored a dozen or so articles and websites to further enrich our learning about the social sector. Honestly, as a student and someone passionate about transformative education, I could not have asked for a more engaging week. I’ve been extremely satisfied with how the three classes we are taking have been facilitated thus far and I’ve especially loved how all of the classes tie into each other seamlessly to create an overarching experience tying together business fundamentals of social enterprises, innovation and leadership, and nonprofit internship work. And the lessons we’ve been learning I truly believe should be fundamental to everyone’s education experience. 

Some of the key principles we’ve talked about include: 

  • humility is key: never assume you are the smartest in the room or you will always be wrong
  • be curious: seek out new information and explore connections to make new discoveries
  • ask questions and then more questions: really get to know the community you’re working with so that you can work together to maximize assets and change the status quo of deficits 

These aren’t just business principles, these are life principles that everyone should be exposed to during their education experience. I was fortunate to have been exposed to these ideas in high school and now get the joy of diving deeper into them, but as I witness all of the ah-ha moments happening daily for my peers, I have realized how few other learners can say the same thing. I can only imagine how many students have and will graduate college without ever thinking about the importance of humility, curiosity, and questioning – the work that happens before brainstorming “the next big thing” – and this seems unacceptable. Every project needs team members to embrace these principles and it should be necessary for the education system to teach this lesson to all learners, not just those (primarily business majors) who self-select to take time to study social impact once in college. 

Requiring all learners to think about their social impact could also help de-stigmatize ideas around working in the social sector – which absolutely needs to happen. 

First off, a big misconception is that nonprofit workers don’t make money, which is not accurate. The nonprofit sector brings in over 2 trillion dollars in revenue annually, and employees can still live very comfortable lives even in the nonprofit industry. Several of our guest speakers have made it very clear that even though they could probably make more money working in a for-profit business, they are by no means struggling and actually higher up employees are making within the upper 5% of all Americans. 

Furthermore, you don’t have to go into the nonprofit industry to create social impact. There are for-profits with corporate social responsibility platforms, and socially responsible corporations, and social enterprises. It’s become more and more popular for businesses to take an interest in supporting societal issues and in some ways having a for-profit model can sometimes be more helpful in creating sustainable change, as we discussed with the case study of Toms shoes because for-profits typically have more consistent income.       

So far I think what has been most striking to me is just acknowledging that even nonprofits are a business. They still need to market, manage, and create an income just like for-profit businesses in order to be sustainable as an organization. The big difference is just that no one person owns a nonprofit, the community does, and income gets circulated back into the business in order to continue to support the social impact mission. However, despite the fact that nonprofits are also businesses, the public tends to think differently about how a nonprofit should function. 

We’ve in-depth discussed how donators will often place restrictions on how their money can be used, and this restricted money hardly ever goes towards paying the staff members or managing overhead cost like marketing. There is this idea that these kind of expenses are not “worthy” and for some reason “aren’t contributing to the cause.” On our site visit to Global Growers, the co-founder told us that as a nonprofit, getting told funds are restricted is one of the most challenging things. Even if you had millions of dollars to support a new project, you still need money to support the manpower required to actually make the project happen or else the money won’t help anyone. 

Perhaps the biggest misconception though is how we envision “in need communities.” So often we focus on problems and what needs to be “fixed.” Jessica Jackley, the founder of Kiva, mentioned in her TED talk how we are taught as children through school and religion to help the poor, and that there will always be poor people, and we should feel guilty for not helping. So Jessica created Kiva as a way to focus not on the fact that people are poor, but the fact that there are great stories of people with great ideas who just need a little money to help support their families and make their dreams a reality. It’s a shift in perspective that requires respect and acknowledging that everyone should have the right to feel dignified in their place in life. We should be working with communities, not for communities. We have to learn about their traditions, values, and customs. Hear their stories. Embrace their assets not dwell on the deficits. 


We have to be humble, curious, and ask questions. 

I hope to do all of these things as I experience a myriad of new communities and cultures in the following weeks to come. I’m excited for the new discoveries, nervous for what I can’t expect, and encouraged by the week spent in Atlanta that I’m in a community of passionate and open-minded learners who will help me through it all. Moreover, I’m convinced that our lives are about to change and I can’t wait to see how. 


If you’d like to read more about our cohort’s journey, this is the link to our program blog where you can read from other learners on the Leadership for Social Good Study Abroad program. I’m also very thankful to have received the Munchak/Cowan-Turner Scholarship, the Mary E. and William T. Naramore International Study Abroad Scholarship, and Stamps Enrichment Funds which have allowed me to participate in this incredible program and would like to thank these families for their support in my learning journey!

 

Being Prepared for College

There’s always value in revisiting conversations. Today at SparkHouse I got the opportunity to re-experience a conversation around distinctions which I thoroughly enjoyed beause it’s one of my favorites. (This link actually connects to my post from Day 1 of SparkHouse 1 from two years ago, and it’s funny now looking back on that day compared to today and how many similar thoughts I had.)

I loved this conversation and many others of the day and was inspired as always by the energy of young learners gathered together to discuss what education could look like in a learner-centered paradigm.

However, what really stood out to me today, because it was unusual and disheartening, was when I heard a learner say they think their environment is too untraditional sometimes and should have more busy work in order to be prepared for college.

My heart was actually broken.

And I believe that the fact that a statement like this could come up at a gathering of learners from all learner-centered schools goes to show how we still have so much further to go in transforming the education system paradigm.

So despite it being 11:45pm after a long day of heavy thinking, high energy, and additionally having to do psych homework even while traveling, I needed to take time to reflect and respond to this comment because it’s been bugging me all day.

First off, I just have to ask, what does it say about our education system when students think college is all about busy work and doing busy work is what prepares you for college?

Second off, I don’t believe we should be conforming and confining k-12 education to doing things only based on what “colleges want.”

This comment was made innocently and honestly and while I don’t agree with the statement if you look deeper into what was being implied, the real problem being described is valid to address: learner-centered high schools and most colleges do not work off of the same paradigm. Therefore, this creates dissonance for everyone involved in our education system– students, parents, teachers, faculty, admissions reps, professors, etc. The proposed expectations, purpose, and methodology behind teaching in these two worlds (learner-centered high school and traditional college) are foundationally different, which can make communication and movement between the worlds challenging.

Moving from a learner-centered high school to a traditional college is hard. I know because that’s my current reality. The thing is, the reason it isn’t easy has nothing to do with “being prepared.”

The number 1 question I have gotten asked since entering college is:

“Did you feel like your high school prepared you to do well in college?”

YES!!! – That’s my short answer.

The long answer is that I’ve felt more than prepared because of all of the skills I learned that are actually useful for life, unlike just learning how to be a really good test taker.

Because being prepared for college is about more than being ready to take tests.

Being prepared for college means that you are mature and responsible enough to live on your own and take ownership of your learning. Being prepared for college means you have a keen sense of self-awareness in order to make informed decisions about your future. Being prepared for college means you are able to clearly and strategically plan and articulate your goals and curiosities to advisors, professors, job interviewers, etc.

You would think it would be obvious that college is about more than just test taking, but apparently, it isn’t because that’s all I seem to get asked about. And yet, while actually in college, I have plenty of advisors telling me almost daily “GPA doesn’t really matter beyond getting your first job/internship- then it’s all about networking, experience, and selling yourself based on your skills.”

So when I say, “switching from a learner-centered high school to a traditional college is hard,” I say that because it’s hard to deal with the culture change. It’s hard to move into a reality where your voice is no longer heard, where you can’t easily pitch new ideas to leadership, where you get lectured at and talked down to constantly, where you are more frequently viewed as a statistic rather than as a holistic person. That’s hard.

It’s not hard to learn how to take tests. Plus every professor is typically a little bit different. For example, one of my current classes does pretty much all assessing online, so all you have to figure out is that the homework questions and practice problems are all potential test problems, then you’re pretty much guaranteed an A on every test. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some hard tests in college, but that’s just because it’s new material and challenging. The test wouldn’t be any easier if I had done more busy work and test taking during high school.

So back to this issue of the dissonance between learner-centered high schools and traditional colleges. Something that extends this challenge is that we too often try to silo our education system by looking at just k-12 or just higher education.

If we are going to “transform the education system” that takes the ENTIRE SYSTEM. 

We can’t ignore the fact that the education system doesn’t stop at high school graduation for the majority of learners.

So in order to bridge the gaps between the two worlds, one student today proposed, “We should have more busy work,” and I propose an alternative: Colleges also need to change their education system.

And I’d like to believe the alternative is the more likely option because it’s the more promising option. When I talk to college admissions reps, a student from a learner-centered high school is the ideal college candidate. They are mature and responsible. They have a keen sense of self-awareness. They can clearly and strategically plan and articulate their goals and curiosities. And they have all sorts of stories and evidence of their experiences that they can share to prove this learning.

However, as more and more learners start to graduate from learner-centered environments, I imagine there will be more and more pushback about why we have to then transition into a traditional college environment. Then these great, college and life ready learners will find alternative solutions of their own. They’ll attend the hand full of non-traditional colleges, or they’ll just continue on with internships from high school, or they’ll study in a different country, or something I’ve not even thought of. Colleges will have to change if they want these great learners in their learning environments.

That’s my hope/belief at least. I hope this process moves father than I anticipate, though unfortunately, bureaucracy and the fear of risks seem to be much more present struggles for colleges to overcome.

I could talk on and on about this struggle of learner-centered high school to traditional college, and to be honest I didn’t even go to one of the more unique high schools out there. There’s so much to be said about transcripts, assessment methods and “How do colleges interpret them?”, my advice to learners making the transition, my desire for a working compilation of non-traditional colleges, etc.

However, the important point here is that it is all a conversation. If you are aware of the two world struggle then you are already making the first step towards being able to respond to the struggle. But I want to make explicitly clear that I don’t, by any means, think the correct response is “Let’s be a little more traditional to prepare for college.”

Struggles are solved by compromise, not conformity.

I have felt beyond prepared for college because of my learner-centered experiences. And even now being in college and knowing what it’s like, I would never trade those experiences for the opportunity to have had more time to practice taking standardized tests to, “Get used to them for college.” Switching worlds is hard, but not because of the tests, it’s because of the culture.

Weirdly enough, upon further reflection, I’m actually glad that this comment was made about wanting busy work to be prepared for college. It brought up a very important question for education in terms of how we distinguish “college ready” from “not college ready” and definitely challenged me to think carefully about my own distinguishment for this topic and even on distinguishing “learner-centered education” as a whole.

SparkHouse Preflection

SparkHouse 3 is finally here and I’m so excited!!!

When I think back to my first time at SparkHouse it’s amazing how much has changed. SparkHouse was where the first idea for Trailblazers came about. Now here I am two years and three e-magazine issues later as a Community Builder and a chaperone for 3 of high school members of the current Trailblazers production team!

Since SparkHouse I’ve also become so much more involved with Education Reimagined and the Education Transformation Movement at large. I’ve attended and mentored at several conferences around the country, participated in numerous calls/video/social media chats,  and even been able to teach a short-term high school course of my own. (Which was obviously un-traditional in nature.) Honestly, it wasn’t until talking to my roommate, who is a first-time learner at SparkHouse, that I realized the full extent of how many opportunities I’ve had since joining this community.

And now that I have become more involved, I’ve realized the importance of “preflecting” – reflecting before things being about my expectations, hopes, and goals for this experience – in order to have a greater take away after the gathering. So here it goes:

Expectations:

  • Great conversations around learner-centered education
  • A deeper connection to the language we use to describe the kind of work we do
  • Be inspired by the amazing work young learners are already doing and the new ideas they bring to the table

Hopes:

  • Members of Trailblazers will branch out and expand their networks
  • We’ll develop new ideas about ways that Trailblazers could contribute to the Education Transformation Movement
  • More young learners will step up and continue to grow their leadership capacities in this movement even beyond SparkHouse

Goals:

  • Have at least five new people sign up/express interest in contributing to Trailblazers
  • Reach 50 followers on Trailblazers social media
  • Find a new tool/activity/mindset that I can implement into my own leadership practices
  • Inspire other learners to become more involved in the community/movement to transform the education system

Thankful for Gymnastics

The world of gymnastics has had a lot going on in the press recently, and unfortunately, the majority is negative. The thing is though, you only ever hear about the bad stuff in the news when the truth is that I think everyone could benefit from gymnastics in their life.

I have literally grown up in the world of gymnastics. My mom was coaching while she was pregnant with me. I was taking classes by the time I was a few months old. I first crawled on a gym floor. I started competing at age 5. I had to quit competitive team due to moving but was still in a gym taking classes until we started a new team program. I started helping with coaching occasionally with birthday parties and camps by age 10. My mom then opened up her own gym and I started training in acrobatic gymnastics (versus artistic gymnastics as most people think of due to the Olympics). By age 13 I was choreographing competitive routines for other team girls and occasionally competing since I was around and kept up my skills. Since then I’ve stopped competing in artistic gymnastics, but am currently training level 8 in acrobatics and have an official coaching schedule as a team coach for our lower levels and choreographer for almost every girl on our team.

Despite several moves at a young age, changing interests, and normal growing up stuff like going to college, gymnastics has always been a part of my life. And I imagine it always will be there in some way because as an athlete, coach, and general lover of gymnastics, there’s so much I’m thankful for about gymnastics.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has taught me to always keep brainstorming and learning from others because there are always new ways to use your resources.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to express my artistic side through choreographing routines and occasionally performing myself.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to play a role in helping kids grow up by working with them to develop their confidence and resilience as well as physical ability.

And I’m thankful for so much more because I know this sport is about more than the scandals and policy changes you might hear about in the news. It’s not even all about the metals or getting to the Olympics either.

Gymnastics at its core is about growth through movement. It’s about the process of setting goals, mastering skills, and performing at your highest caliber. It’s about balance in all senses of the word.

This past weekend I attended a camp for upper-level gymnasts and coaches which is what prompted this post on gymnastics. I appreciated the chance to listen and learn more about drills, techniques, and mindsets currently being developed in our sport. Coaching is about more than just how to teach skills, and what I find most people don’t realize is just how much time coaches spend learning and discussing sports psychology, mental health, and safety on top of the practicality of how to best teach skills. We have a duty to train kids beyond just physically but also mentally and emotionally which is a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

And on the note of mindsets, one of the biggest things I was reminded of this weekend is that in the midst of change we have to stay positive and continue to share the reasons we love what we do.

The simple truth is that a few bad apples can never describe the whole batch. Despite what the media may currently say about the world of gymnastics, there are a lot of great coaches out there doing great things for kids nationwide. And I’m thankful for those coaches and the world of gymnastics for all it has, is, and will teach me.

 

Giving a S***: Design for a Better World (Final Report!)

Fall of my freshman year of college, I joined the Wish for WASH team at Georgia Tech. I showed up to the Engineers Without Boarders info session because I had remembered listening to one of the founders of Wish for WASH, Jasmine Burton, speak at my high school about the original design project she embarked on to create a low-cost toilet for a community in Zambia. When I heard that the team was going to be partnering with a local private school to lead a design thinking and sustainability class for high school students, I knew I needed to apply to be a part of this journey.

Joining this team was one of the best decisions I made all year!

I posted a lot about the process of creating and conducting this month-long “short-term” class at Paideia High School, and now I am excited to share our final report of the project!!! (As the lead for the education sub-team, I created a lot of the content for this write-up, so I’m overjoyed about how this turned out as well as the class itself! Also, I’m so grateful for all of the work the rest of the team put in– The class wouldn’t have been the same without everyone who helped along the way and I’ve never had a final report look so pretty!)

Overall I’m so proud of everything we accomplished and can’t wait for what adventures are in store for me next on this team.

(Click here to learn more about the Paideia class partnership, and other projects from Wish for WASH!)

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My Opinion on Online Classes

Online classes aren’t really a new thing, yet they seem to still get perceived as new which is odd to me. I officially got registered for the online version of a required CS class today and as I was walking with an upperclassman she asked me, “As a student with a passion for learner-centered education, I’m curious about your opinion on online classes.”

I guess this title is a bit of a misnomer because in actuality I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about online courses.

I use to very strongly be against them, but seeing as today I signed up for my 3rd ever online class, I realized that opinion clearly changed and now is more neutral.

I was against online classes because the depth of learning isn’t as powerful in an online class. I mean if you ask most students they’ll flat out say online courses are easier- that was at least a factor to my reasoning to register. Online classes may be interactive some, but the material is set and rigid and pretty surface level since there are no conversations where deeper questions can be posed and explored. The material is all given to you up front and you can finish as quickly as you would like/are able to; there is no “well the class seemed really interested on this topic so we pivoted the schedule to do a whole project unit where we came up with plans and prototypes and pitched to board members…”

You don’t sign up for an online course because of the content. I signed up for CS online course because the in-person course happened at a time I didn’t particularly like with the rest of my schedule. It meant I would have to rush from CS class across campus to Marta twice a week all semester and then uber to the gym to still be a bit late to coaching the practices I help with.

That’s really the big plus I see about online courses: time and location flexibility. That’s the reason I’ve now signed up for three different online classes since high school. It was always an issue of scheduling where I needed to take a class but didn’t have room in my busy schedule and the online option ended up being the perfect compromise.

So from the perspective of a student trying to get a credit out of the way and get a decent grade while doing other things, online classes are great. However, when I think about the quality of learning happening in most online classes, I find it to be sub-par.

It’s pretty easy to cut corners in online classes, and when you’re already not interested in the topic and just taking the course for credit sake, there’s little motivation to not want to just “get through it” as fast as possible.

Furthermore, I believe that a huge part of learning revolves around the social interactions and relationships built during the learning process. It’s really hard to successfully achieve those relationships in an online environment. Again, partially because there’s no real incentive to strive for that deeper level of learning. I consider myself to be an intrinsically motivated learner and a pretty good student, (yes, I believe those are different thing, but that is a different conversation), and even I don’t find myself caring to make the extra effort in an online course to really make it a remarkable learning experience; I just want the credit on my own time.

Obviously, this is all my own personal opinion, and some kids may, in fact, make that extra effort, though in my experience few do.

As I told the friend who asked me about my opinion, thus inspiring this post tonight, I believe that online courses are still a work in progress. I don’t have a strong opinion yet because I see the potential in them to be a great learning tool, though at this point I think they are just a great tool for the traditional system where learning has a more cut and dry vibe. The flexible time and space component to online courses is learner-centered in nature, though the context, course material, and assessment structure is still very much not.

A Story Retold

I’ve been wanting to see Come From Away for months, and in a last minute decision my aunt and I decided to go see it tonight- it was incredible!!!

 Come From Away is great in the way that it’s based on true stories that I never would’ve thought about: What happened to all the passengers on flights that weren’t allowed to enter the US after the terrorist attack on 9/11?

The city of Gander in Newfoundland was turned upside down when 38 international planes carrying 7,000 people from around the globe were all forced to land on the tiny island while the United States closed its airspace for five days. These strangers spoke different languages, practised different religions, and ate different foods, and yet this small town took in everyone providing them with food, shelter, and a change of clothes. Together they created a community all their own that transcended the differences.

Schools became shelters. A mascot costume and some balloon animals became Disney World. Grills were collected for a giant barbeque. A chimpanzee had a miscarriage. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have your town’s population double in size in a mear few hours, but somehow the people of Gander provided everyone with everything they needed free of charge. Their response was just, “You would do the same for us.”

It’s amazing the kindness that can come out of people when it’s really needed most.

I love how theatre can introduce you to stories and perspectives you may normally miss upon first glance thinking about a situation. There are so many amazing stories out in the world that sadly go unshared, so it’s nice to see a true story re-told every now and then.

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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A Chance at Greatness

Earlier today I read this article about the application process to get into middle schools and high schools in New York. It’s crazy!!!

(I’d strongly encourage reading this article before reading the rest of my post because it provides helpful context.)

I remember applying to colleges all too vividly and it was stressful and tiresome and promoted all sorts of self-doubt amongst teens. For students applying to some schools, your shot all boils down to a bunch of numbers – that’s terrifying. From what I can tell, it seems like some kids go through this same process as early as when they’re 10-11 and only just about to enter 6th grade- that seems outright wrong.

Even looking past the equality debates and economic pull for a second (though very real issues as well), what 10-year-old should have to be thinking about how their grades will affect the rest of their life: the odds of getting into a good middle school leading to odds of going to a good high school leading to odds of being well prepared for college. Sure you may think, “Well the child probably isn’t worrying about all of the grades and applications and portfolios; the parents are the ones to really send stuff in,” but what is the likelihood parents don’t start pressuring their kids more and more with each year the academic game gets more competitive? Parents just want their kid to go to a good school, but what has to happen for them to get there?

And let’s keep in mind elementary school “grades” are basically assessing things like multiplication to the power of 12 and a few basic sentences written in a row.

I couldn’t read well until 2nd grade, does that mean I shouldn’t have gotten a chance at a good education?

This article honestly made me consider even beyond this apparent problem with New York City schools. I realized that there are often complaints about the ways that higher education admits students, but how often do we consider all of the k-12 schools who also have application processes? How do they work? How heavily are grades and standardized tests considered? Are children truly looked at holistically?

I’m just throwing out questions because I really don’t know how it works. I had never considered how lucky I am to have gone to the same school for middle and high school. A lot of kids go to a different school every four-ish years of their life because that’s just how neighbourhood schools tend to work. I, on the other hand, switched to a private school when I was going into 6th grade and then got to just stay at that school. I didn’t have to deal with applying to a new high school, or meeting new friends, or getting used to a new school system.

I vaguely remember the application process going into 6th grade. I’m sure my records were sent in and then I remember having an interview where they asked me to solve some basic math problems and take a few “creativity tests.” I only applied to one school. If I didn’t get in and didn’t get financial aid, I would’ve gone to our local middle school despite it being known as, “not a good school.” I was fortunate to make it in and to be on scholarship, but many don’t get that same chance.

My life would be completely different had I not switched schools in 6th grade. Completely and utterly so, I’m certain of it.

I hate that there even exists rumours of “not good schools.” Shouldn’t every child get to go to a great school? School is honestly one of the biggest parts of childhood. We spend 35+ hours a week in school for roughly 180 days a year. That amount of time spanning from age 5-18 (and some kids spend longer than that), adds up to an underestimate of about 16,380 hours spent in k-12 school during childhood. That’s a ton of time!

Obviously, this article I read is focused primarily on how the system to apply to schools is corrupt, but in my opinion, if the schools supposedly “not good” we just transformed to be better, then maybe the application system would self-fix to some extent. Every school has a different culture. Two schools can be entirely different and yet both equally great for the right child. The school application process should be about finding what culture of a school is best for each individual child, not about children competing to be admitted into the select few great schools.

School influences life; there is no questioning that anymore in the age we live in. Being okay with some schools just not being great is like saying not all kids deserve a chance at a great life.

We need all schools to be great.