The End of Normal

My “normal” has officially forever changed ever since graduation. While I don’t think life is ever in a state of complete normalcy, because people aren’t normal and everyday is a new day full of new adventures, there is no denying that a lot of things stay constant in our lives for given periods of time. My semi-normal was living at home, going to Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, seeing my friends, doing a ton of theater, working at the gym, performing acro routines, playing the occasional soccer game with my rec team, etc. This semi-normal no longer exists.
After Italy I didn’t go home back to “normal life.” I woke up in New York City and got on a plane to Vermont to visit Zeno Mountain Farms, a collection of friends with diverse needs, where I went to camp for a week and got to be in a movie; that’s not normal. And now (well while I’m writing this even though I won’t have internet to send it until I’m back in NYC), I’m at Capon Springs, our family reunion place in West Virginia that is essentially Dirty Dancing without the dancing (or the dirty as someone also felt we should clarify on our teen hayride last night).
While Capon is kind of normal because we go every summer, it isn’t like the rest of the year because we get to just chill and run around with friends playing badminton and shuffle board and ultimate frisbee and really whatever we want without phone connection and limited internet. Plus I continue to travel after this. Next I’ll be in NYC and then Ohio before returning home for a weekend before orientation and then my first year retreat and trip to Scotland with the other Stamps Presidential Scholars at Georgia Tech. Then we get back and only have a day before I move into my college dorm and my life is forever different, cus college…
It’s just so crazy to think that everything I once considered to be normal life is never fully going to exist again. I will be attending a different school with different some friends, and new activities, and living in a new place all together. And that will continue to be slightly weird until one day I wake up and realize that this new life is my new normal.
Obviously not everything will change, and with being only about 20 minutes from my house, honestly less will probably change than the normal college student; however, it is just weird that it finally hit me that it’s officially the end of normal.
And while all of this traveling has been quite fun, it’s also a little scary to think about how much is going to change all at once, because unlike a lot of other recent graduates I know, I wasn’t as super ready to “escape” as some said. But it doesn’t really matter if I’m ready or not, because now it’s just time to live in the present and adjust to this new normal that’s out there, even if, like this summer, one day that normal becomes constant change. Change in my opinion isn’t always good or always bad, but it is ever present and full of new opportunities.
So good bye normal. It was nice knowing you.

fuse17 Here We Go!!!

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It’s finally Fuse17 week!!!! That means dozens of educators from around the country have gathered at our school to learn about design thinking and how it’s applicable in the real world, including/especially within education. Plus, unlike a normal conference (says the 18 year old…), we get the joy of working alongside of 3 non profits as we go through a lap of the design thinking process.

I’ve been waiting all year for this event and am so glad it’s finally here and that we have such an amazing group of people gathered!!!

Now I’m really tired and should probably sleep seeing as tonight’s only day 1 of the 3 day conference. However, I couldn’t help but reflect a little on my already uncontainable excitement from day one, so I’m going to try to make this short, which is a struggle of mine.

Today was a day of really gearing up for the Moonshot of the conference. Participants started the day in a lab either dt101-Flashlab or dt102-Consultivation; these labs allowed participants to get an extra lap through the design thinking process (at whatever level suited their past experience) under their belt before we head into the big design challenge working with our non-profit partners. Then the evening was really spent diving deep into MoVe Talks where we heard from the various non profit organizations (GA Farmers Markets, Beds 4 Kids, and Love Beyond Walls) as well as some MVPS speakers who focused on how we use DT at MVPS for all ages in various capacities.

What really stood out personally for me today was to see how far we- MVPS, MVIFI, Innovation Diploma, even fuse itself- have come in the past four years. (I guess when you graduate you can’t help but spend the summer reminiscing on how much things have changed over time because it seems to be a recent theme of mine.)

Hearing the MoVe Talks today from MVPS people made me realize how many more stories we have to share than four years ago and how we have so many people that could give a MoVe Talk if needed, students included. We have 6 total Innovation Diploma members at fuse17 which is a much greater turn out than the last two years where we had about 3 max, and I’ve already been hearing so many comments about people being impressed by the students they’re working with or hearing from. And projects that ID has worked on over the past few years came up myriad times over the course of the day, which just goes to show that we’ve done some pretty awesome noteworthy stuff in the past three years.

Furthermore, facilitating the Consultivation session allowed me to experience and feel how far we’ve come.

This may sound odd, but there was an almost physical vibe about how comfortable things felt in terms of the DT process/facilitation/coaching going smoothly. We’ve facilitated dozens of design challenges in the past four years- yes I say we, I may only be a recent grad, but I have done my fair share of facilitating- and we are still constantly prototyping new ideas on how to run them, but today just felt so organic and there weren’t a million questions about, “Wait I don’t understand this, how do I use this tool?” It was great! (Wow that was a run on sentence, but I’m just so empowered right now that I can’t help but think and type faster than my poor grammar can try to keep up!)

I’m going to cut this post shorter than my normal reflections because I need to get some rest, because these next few days are about to be full of hard purposeful work- so obviously it’s going to be too much fun to want to spoil by being sleep deprived!

Trailblazers- Student Driven EdMagazine

It’s official, the first edition of Trailblazers, a student driven magazine on the Education Transformation Movement, is here with young writers from around the world contributing!!!! My peers in the Innovation Diploma, Abigail Emerson and Kaylyn Winters, and I have been working at this project all year after some last minute edits over the summer, we now feel it is time to ship the idea and get it out into the world.

So please check out our first edition which includes:

A Letter From the Founders

Meet the Curators: Anya Smith-Roman, Kaylyn Winters, Abigail Emerson

The learner-centered movement: Q&A: Sparkhouse Conference

Creating Something New: Brady Vincent

Change is a Conversation: Neel Pujar

Free Ranged vs. Caged: Kim Mi Yeoh

Intelligence: Cali Ragland

Community Connections

Good Reads

 

Thanks to everyone who helped make this possible!! Can’t wait for issue 2!

I Am a Designer

IMG_7447What feels like a very long time ago, I had to start writing my Common App essay for college. Back when I did start brainstorming what to write about, I turned immediately to my blog; it’s been amazing to have a an entire collection of reflections from some of the most memorable things that have happened over the years. It only seemed right that now, now that I’m finally decided on a college and graduated high school, that I should officially post my Common App essay:

 

Common App Prompt 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

I am a designer. Anyone can be a designer. You don’t need a fancy degree or a Mona Lisa to prove it. You just have to be confident enough to say it, “I am a designer.” This was the message I delivered to inspire creative confidence to a “young” audience of design thinkers. Let me set the stage.

The summer after sophomore year, I earned the opportunity to be one of four guest speakers at an annual summer conference called Fuse, facilitated by the Mount Vernon Institute For Innovation. This event gathers 110 educators, business leaders, social innovators, change agents and dreamers from around the world to make an impact while learning more deeply as design thinkers. A slide deck appears on stage and the attendees saw the peculiar twitter handle @Pinyabananas, then a single spot light illuminated me- a 16 year old girl with her hair in a scrunchie. As a speaker, I delivered a 10 minute presentation similar to a TEDTalk where I shared about “Thinking Like a Designer.” My role: to get the room full of educators excited and confident in their abilities to spend three days problem solving for four different non-profit organizations. As the only speaker under the age of 30, the one with the least formal schooling and lacking the series of credentials and accomplishments of the other speakers, I was nervous.

Being an actress, I’ve been up on stage dozens of times in front of audiences larger than 110 people. I’m comfortable with public speaking, but this experience was different. This time I was the only student; specifically chosen because the organization believes that I have a story and ideas that educators should hear. Typically, it’s assumed that anyone still in secondary schooling has much to learn and not much to teach. When asked to speak, I was tasked with representing not only myself, but all students– to prove that we can have insightful thoughts worth sharing in serious conversations about the future.

I got up on stage vulnerable yet confident, and shared what I believe to be a recipe for success: to have community involvement, work with a #fuse15 MoVe Talkpurpose, a mentor to guide you, a mindshift to turn problems into opportunities, and a bias towards action. I challenged the entire audience to say the opening lines of this essay with me: “I am a designer.” To my surprise, when I repeated this statement, a chorus joined me; 110 educators accepted the challenge proposed by a 16 year-old girl to think like designers.

Age doesn’t have to be a limiter in life. If I am willing to take action for a cause that I care deeply about, then anything is possible. After my talk I had a number of educators come up to me and say, “You are inspiring!,” “I can’t believe you’re only 16,” “Thank you for giving me the confidence to do this.” Later that night my phone was blowing up with the number of twitter notifications I was getting from people commenting, liking, and retweeting things about my talk; our head of school even said, “Sounds like the takeaway of the night was from @Pinyabananas ‘I am a designer.’” It was a crazy night for me; it’s hard to believe it really happened.

This talk has since been used at a number of other workshops, some of which I probably don’t even know about. I remember researching myself online one day and found a link to a presentation by a professor in England who used the video of my talk! I am still astonished to think that my work had such an impact, and have continued to use my digital presence through daily blogging and tweeting as a mouthpiece for students around the country who remain silent school consumers. Anyone can be a designer. You just have to be confident enough to say it, “I am a designer.”

Why I Blog

For a girl whose lowest grades always came from English class, I never thought I would confidently call myself a writer. Then I assigned myself the challenge to start a blog and post for 100 days in a row after getting an “innovation bingo” card that was meant to give students like me ideas for ways to stretch our creative minds over the summer. The activities wouldn’t be graded and we weren’t required to do any of them at all, but I love a good challenge.

At first I was at a loss for what to write about, but I learned quickly that it’s best to write about what I know and observe. My first few posts still make me laugh because they were very short, hardly a few paragraphs, and each of them were about somewhat cliche topics. However, as many teachers often say, “The more you practice the better you get,” and over time my writing actually got better.

Much to my surprise I slowly got more followers as my writing improved; thought leaders from around the world are constantly commenting on my posts. I still just write about my daily observations, but my observations have grown more insightful. Furthermore, blogging has allowed me to learn more about myself and has opened me up to new opportunities.

Knowing myself is the first step to being able to better understand the world. Truthfully, I believe that K-12 education does not focus enough on students learning about and discovering their sense of self. My sense of self has developed immensely due to blogging because sometimes when I write and then read over my writing, I’m able to discern trends and tendencies about how I act and respond to situations better than I can otherwise. I can then hypothesize about my future self in situations based on these observations. I’m still discovering more about myself everyday, and it makes me excited—I wish more students got the chance to experience this. As I move forward in life, I hope to learn more about ways to help other kids learn more about themselves because that’s how we grow.

One thing that I have learned, is that I deeply desire to be a part of the movement to transform education. Students of today’s schools need to be prepared for jobs that are yet to exist, and a school that is still following the traditional norms of an Industrial Age school is simply not going to prepare kids to solve the problems of tomorrow. One way I have contributed to this movement is by learning about the process of design thinking, human centered problem solving, which has allowed me to see problems in my everyday life as opportunities for change and innovation. Over time, my blog has become more and more related to education transformation and ways that I believe we can blur the lines between “school” and the “real world” in order to give students authentic learning experiences that will help them throughout their lives.

 Blogging has given me a place to share my story in a way that allows me to easily look back and find trends and connections between my observations. And, on top of everything, I’m constantly expanding my network and being asked to participate in new opportunities. Writing helps us think, reflecting helps us grow, and sharing helps make the world a better place—blogging is all three in one! I know I’m not the best writer in the world, and I know there’s much to improve on. But, since I’ve been blogging, I’ve developed a new confidence and appreciation for having the ability to share my own individual voice with the world.

The Unpaved Path

C_egitqXkAAEVE4In two days I graduate…. That’s crazy. I’m a very nostalgic person, and, therefore, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing by reading old blog posts, emails, and in general having conversations with friends about the past four years of our lives. So when we decided that we wanted our ID seniors to give MoVe Talks to the younger cohorts and some admin as a way to share our parting advice, it didn’t take long for me to come up with the story I wanted to share.

Towards the end of sophomore year I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my favorite memories of freshman year. In this post I questioned the idea of students walking on an already paved path, well this thought has now come full circle as I’ve learned through my work in the Innovation Diploma that the path unpaved is a path worth taking.

Below is the script I used for my MoVe Talk which is as close as I have to the exact words I used to attempt to impart this idea on to the younger cohorts.

“I could list a ton of things I learned from these experiences, but the grades don’t matter a smidge  to me (most of them didn’t even have real grades, but I still learned and enjoyed the moments enormously.) These stories I shared were all moments were I had incredible joy and also felt incredibly proud of my work because I took part in the creation of the end product and felt connected to the outcome; a teacher hadn’t predesigned what would come from the experience.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense; if the teachers already have the path paved for the students, how will they ever learn to make their own path? “- Paving a Path; The Life of Pinya

Before I begin, I want everyone to close your eyes and imagine standing on a path in a forest. There is gravel and some large rocks, and it’s evident that people have walked this trail before. From where you stand you can clearly see the end of the trail.

Now turn to your left and right. There are trees everywhere and some flowers growing on the ground. There is no paved path in this part of the forest, but the unusual flowers and glimpses of multicolored light shining through the trees are intriguing. If you are pursuing innovative education practices, then you are in this unknown part of the forest and are pioneering a trail on the unpaved path.

IMG_1634.jpg

This is me back in middle school, and today I want to tell the story of how I got from there (point to screen) to here (tada) because I’ve taken a fairly unusual path.

Back in 8th grade when this picture was taken, I was honestly pretty much your stereotypical try hard, nerdy, rule following student. In fact I won the award for highest gpa at the end of the year. I say this not because I feel like this award was all that important or because I want to brag about myself- I mean, it’s middle school let’s be real all of that is trivial in that regard- but I say this so hopefully you can better understand where I was coming from when going into high school.

My understanding of a successful student was someone who made all As, got a few awards, and then eventually got into a good college with scholarship money, and if you could become Valedictorian then you were really set for life.

At this point in my life, I was playing the game of school well and thusly believed I was on this path to success, and I was perfectly content with just that.

It wasn’t until freshman year that I started to believe that maybe there could be more to school.

Big History.pngNow some of you may recognize this picture because it’s a picture from the moment I describe as my clicking moment. The moment where I realized success in school could be so much more than just good grades, and realized that school needs to change in order to meet these new standards of success.

After participating in the 2013 Council on Innovation, I learned that I as a freshman had the ability to give advice and pitch ideas to community leaders that they actually valued. That was huge and stuck with me into my classes. In particular, freshman world history.

Here is where I believe my unusual journey begins.

Everyone in the grade had been tasked with the assignment of creating a project about whatever we wanted and would then present for 5-10 minutes anyway we choose fit. I had chosen a topic, but after a few days of working on the assignment I was getting frustrated because I didn’t want to just give a presentation of facts that anyone could easily look up online for themselves if they really wanted to know about it.

I talked to my teacher and after a few more days we agreed I needed a new topic, so instead we had the idea for me to present a project on “hmw redesign projects?”

C_jWuzOXYAAtNSR.jpgLong story short, I took this 5-10 minute project and turned it into a 45 minute lecture complete with a slide deck, prototypes, and 3 videographers.

This wasn’t the “normal” thing to do for my ideal path to success, which just made me even more incredibly nervous that no one would like it and it all would have been a huge waste of time and I would just fail the entire project. And I couldn’t tell you now what grade I made on that assignment, but I can say that it ended up being one of the most empowering and fulfilling experiences of my high school career which meant more to me than any grade in that moment.

This all started with me questioning a teacher’s assignment. Now I’m not saying you should go off telling all of your teachers that you could make a better assignment than them, but I do believe one of the most important things I’ve learned is that you should never be afraid to ask a mentor for guidance if you feel like you have feedback that could help improve your school experience. Nothing will change that isn’t first questioned.C_jWuz8XYAAhWUT

As you can imagine, my path to graduation only got more unusual as I got older. For starters, I joined ID– a new vague program that promised to help nurture students into innovators. I jumped at the opportunity, but not everyone was quite as on board with the latest edition of Mount Vernon’s attempts to instill the mindsets in us.

To be honest, probably the hardest part of deciding to take an usual path was the social struggles I faced due to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you in here, especially the IDers who have been around for a little now, have at some point in time heard negative comments about ID, and maybe even felt like you were being offended because you are involved in the program. I know I did especially since I was around back during the dark ages when we really didn’t have much to show for ourselves and people tend to be skeptical of ideas without a proof of concept.

2014-09-12 14.49.57And this social tension around my path to graduation only grew when I got to junior year and made what many people believed to be an incredibly unusual decision for myself: I didn’t take all APs. (hu!!)

It is my belief that AP history courses are often trying to cover too much information in not enough time, and the content is a lot of reading and memorizing, and the writing is very dry and the AP doesn’t even require everything to be factual to get full credit. Thus I decided I would not take AP History because I didn’t feel interested in that kind of learning and would rather give myself more time to devote to attending education conferences, and working with community leaders, and talking to interested families about ID, and writing articles for magazines about education transformation, and all sorts of other projects that were truly meaningful to me because they beneficially impacted others.

However, this decision was still incredibly difficult for me because to me it symbolized taking myself out of the game.

Let me remind you that my vision of success basically meant the path to becoming valedictorian. Going into and early on in high school I truly thought that was what I wanted. But as many of you know, the class of 2017 is incredibly competitive when it comes to playing the traditional school game of grades, so by choosing to not take all APs, this also meant choosing to not be able to have as high of a GPA as my peers, and therefore I knew I would not be valedictorian despite originally being on this path if I made this choice.

DAH2mT5XsAAKMKvPeople, including some of my best friends, would tell me this was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. They would say that I was too smart to not take all APs, or they would say that they didn’t get why I would take myself out of the running for val, or they would say that I was taking the easy option and I’d be less competitive to colleges, etc. etc.

And despite whether or not you are in the position to be the potential val of your grade, to some extent we can all relate to this struggle of wanting to maintain a good gpa for college and what not, but also wanting the time to work on things other than just grades.

I didn’t let the opinions of others influence me too much, and I’ve been very satisfied with my decision to drop AP History courses. And in general I have always loved and appreciated all of the opportunities I’ve had through ID, but I’m not gonna lie that I was often still nervous about what colleges would think of everything I’ve done because the scariest part about taking your own unpaved path is that you can’t possibly know how others will react to it.

How would they view a kid who didn’t take as many AP courses as others, who joined a new program with only two other graduates, who co-created her own non-traditional AP Lang class, and who took an independent study instead of the traditional economics course amongst other things?

But now I’m on the other side and I believe I’ve exceeded my original vision of a successful student.

I…

  • Presented a MoVe Talk in front of over a hundred educators
  • Facilitated hundreds through design thinking Flashlabs
  • Participated in a week long experience with the Stanford d.School#fuse15 MoVe Talk.jpg
  • written 611 blog posts in not even 3 years, and created a network of over 250 people
  • Co-created and attended the first ever AP Course (approved by the College Board and the admin of our school) with a syllabus created by teenagers
  • been commissioned to write a number of magazine articles and guest on two podcasts about education transformation
  • Worked with the Center for Disease Control and the mayor of Sandy Springs
  • Co-led sessions at faculty meetings on “day’s off”
  • Pitched business ideas in a 3-Day Startup Program
  • Re-designed a classroom into an innovation studio
  • Changed the way 23 freshman experienced World History by forming the Design Team
  • and many more…

And now I am about to graduate with two diplomas which means not only can I say that I had all of these incredibly unique and fulfilling experiences, but I also believe I’ve achieved many of the “traditional school goals” as well.

I have had all As throughout high school, will be attending a well respected school (Yup it’s official go Yellow Jackets because I’ll be at Georgia Tech next year!!), got into a selective honors program, and even got a full ride scholarship!

Again my point to all of this isn’t to brag about myself, but for years when I talk about all of the innovative work we’ve been doing in ID in order to transform the “norm” about education, people have been asking me “Well where’s the evidence that this works? How do colleges and the ‘real world’ respond to this kind of thing?”

WScreen Shot 2017-05-18 at 10.32.51 PM.pngell I’m proud to say that I- we- can finally answer them. Even after having two graduates last year, it didn’t seem like enough of a statistic. But we are now about to have 6 total graduates from the Innovation Diploma program who have been highly successful no matter how you look at it, and that to me is a huge win for all of us. We have always believed what we are doing is great, and every year even more believe it too.

I feel more than prepared for college because I feel like I’ve been exposed to the real world all ready due to the choices I made to put faith in things that had never been done before.

So, I hope all of you remember that yes the path we educator pioneers tend to walk on that’s untraditional, unknown, un-”approved” can be scary because you don’t know how others will receive it, but don’t be afraid to question and take action about things you believe in because the chances are that others will believe in them too.

And even the unpaved path can be very successful in the school game if you work hard at whatever path you choose.  And if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself more empowered, fulfilled, and prepared for the next chapter of your life than you ever would have found possible without the Innovation Diploma.

 

Last Hurrah

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(Precursor: I wrote this post last Sunday night with the perspective of just getting back to school after break; however, I wanted to wait to post it until I finally gathered at least a majority of my favorite pictures so that I could upload a slideshow to later look back at. That took longer than expected to put together, so just use those creative imagination skills to pretend this post is being read the last night before school starts after a two week break from classes.)

I feel like these past two weeks have flown by. Interim and spring break have both been amazing, but now I really don’t feel ready to go back to sitting in a classroom for seven hours a day. Traveling around the world is a much more enjoyable way to get completely exhausted; I mean, I’ve barely even had any time to blog because of how many nights I got to spend exploring new places and hanging out with friends and family. I’m still trying to process that two weeks ago I was in France and two days ago I was coming home from Jamaica. And yet what seems even crazier still, in two months I graduate high school…

While taking a ride up the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower a few people mentioned “Wow, this is really our last hurrah together,” but it didn’t fully hit me until now just how true this was. Teachers and students both have been saying throughout the year, “We just have to make it until spring break.” Well, spring break is over. Now what?

Now we go back to classes. Hear back from those last few colleges. Maybe get nominated for a scholarship. (I’m actually a finalist for the Georgia Tech Stamps Presidential Scholarship and, because college work doesn’t take a break, I attended a two day overnight event this weekend with the other 114 finalists, and I find out on Friday if I’m a scholar; fingers crossed!!!) Then we have Prom, the last few theater performances and sports events, decision day, exams, the honors assembly, and then it’s over. Four years later, and high school is officially weeks away from being over.

When we reached the top of the Eiffel Tower, looking down felt similar to senior year: like we were on top of the world. Up top we couldn’t see the chaos of the streets below, we could only see the bright lights shining through the night. At the end of a journey it’s important to remember the times where you struggled, but at the end it’s nice to take a moment to celebrate all of the shining moments.

At the top of the tower, lots of pictures were taken to capture the fleeting moment. As senior year comes to an end, sometimes I’m ready for it to all just be over, but other times I wish we could spend just a little longer capturing and living in these happy moments.