Diverse by Design: Episode 3 (Never Teach Alone)

Powerful learning is a relational act; it never occurs alone.

Why, then, do we expect our teacher to hone their craft in isolation?

In episode 3 of the six-part series, Diverse by Design, we meet two of Crosstown High’s inaugural class of teachers, and learn why they believe that co-teaching is the only way to go. So be prepared: their perspective may change the way you think about the future of learning — and what it will require.

Seeds for a Better World

I’m writing a new book with some cool folks — a field guide for a better world. The goal is to translate the core design principles of the natural world, and show readers how to apply those principles in the service of creating better human systems (including, and not limited to, our schools).

To do it right, however, we need your help. So here’s the idea, and the challenge:

Imagine a small metal tin filled with colorful index cards — sort of like your Grandma’s old recipe box, but in this case, instead of each card showing you how to make peach cobbler or yummy meatloaf, they’re showing you how to build a better world.

Now, imagine that each seed/card outlines something tangible to do — the sort of thing that anyone, anywhere, can apply and “plant” in their own life and work immediately (since our own behavior is the only thing we can actually control).

Next, imagine that these seeds are scattered across the following six categories of individual action: TEACHING, LEARNING, PARENTING, LEADING, CREATING, and BEING. And imagine that every seed/card has a front and a back that outlines the what (do I do), the how (do I do it), the who (gave me this seed), and the why (should i make time to do this?

By way of example, here are three, properly titled and categorized, along with their authors and a way to go deeper.

But the real question is, what would be your seed(s) of contribution to the tin?

Maybe it’s an idea/recipe original to you, or maybe it’s an excerpt from some super useful thing you read by someone else. But if you could only provide a single seed/idea/recipe to be planted in the service of building a better world, what would it be?

Standing by for all clarifying questions and ideas, and thanks in advance for your thought and creativity!


One of the most important questions any school or teacher can ask is simple: “How can we be more thoughtful about what we do?”

Unfortunately, it’s not the question we ask most frequently. The question schools and teachers have fallen in love with — “What more should we be doing? — is much more dangerous. It also leads to the creation of unsustainable systems.

The better question, the sustainable question, the question that frees up resources for schools to do more is the question of reflection and refinement.

Schools are better when they create spaces and expectations for reflection.

Formalized protocols for the adoption of reflective practices abound — though a good place to start is schoolreforminitiative.org/protocols. What’s most important, however, is simply creating the space and support for reflecting on the work that is already being done. And while it would be ideal if this reflective practice started with the principal, it could start anywhere.

In fact, it should start everywhere. Department chairs, classroom teachers, sports coaches — we can all be models of reflection to those with whom we work. That’s why reflective practice means asking not, “What more can we be doing?” but “How can we do what we’re already doing. better?”




All parents experience times when their children say things and get upset about issues that don’t seem to make sense. At moments like this, however, one of the least effective things we can do is jump in and argue with our child’s faulty logic. Instead, we need to recognize that our children are experiencing a right-brain, nonrational, emotional flood, which guarantees that any sort of logical, literal left-brain response will only make the situation worse.

Instead, try this: Connect with the right. Redirect with the left.

When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs.By letting our children know that we hear what is upsetting them, we show that we are tuned into how they are feeling. Instead of fighting against the huge waves of emotion, we surf them.

After responding with the right, we can redirect with the left through logical explanation and planning. It won’t always do the trick, but Connecting and Redirecting will almost always work better than Commanding and Demanding. It’s as if you’re a lifeguard who swims out, puts your arms around your child, and helps him to shore before telling him not to swim out so far next time.





  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Take 3 slow, deep breaths.
  3. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  4. Relax into your body.
  5. Clear your mind.
  6. Keep going.

Meditation is all about the practice. Don’t get too focused on whether or not you’re ‘doing it right’. The process of redirecting your focus to the present moment is where the benefit comes.

One of the most valuable aspects of it is that it builds resilience over time, not only during a meditative sit, but during stressful moments in your daily life as well. With regular practice, you’ll begin to notice more space between events and your reactions. You’ll find that you are more able to make choices in how you respond rather than acting on impulse.  

Breathing out slowly through your mouth stimulates the Vagus Nerve which connects with almost every organ in your body and immediately sends signals to your brain to relax. Your heart rate slows, as does the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) into your brain.

Though it can be intimidating to begin, even this short five-minute meditation, practiced frequently, can bring noticeable stress relief and peace into your life over time. For best results, try longer meditation sessions (20 minutes or more) a few times per week. Then, these five-minute sessions will have more of an immediate impact when you need them!




The Most Famous Nursery Schools in the World — And What They Can Teach Us

Reggio Emilia, a mid-sized city that sits roughly halfway between Milan and Bologna, is not your grandmother’s Italy.

For starters, it’s more hardscrabble than picturesque — heavily graffitied, with streets and buildings that feel weathered and worn from everyday use. And although you’ll still find the charming clock tower, the cobblestone streets and the Renaissance-era churches in the city center, you’ll also find a city in which one out of five residents is not from Italy itself, but places as far-flung as Ghana and Nigeria, Morocco and Albania, Yemen and Syria.

It is, in short, a microcosm of the changing face of Italy, and of the wider world: nascent, uprooted, and precariously perched between worlds and worldviews.

Why, then, is it also the home to the finest nursery schools in the world?

Recently, I traveled there to find out — along with more than 300 other educators from around the world. We were part of an international study group, scores of which regularly visit Reggio’s integrated public system of more than eighty infant/toddler and early childhood centers to bear witness to what has been created here — and wonder how it can be replicated elsewher

Because Reggio schools don’t exist anywhere else in the world — the closest you’ll find are schools that say they’re “Reggio-inspired” — they’re not well known outside of progressive education circles. But for those that do know, a visit to Reggio is akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca. And after spending five days there, walking the city’s streets, listening to lectures, and visiting several of its schools, I can see why.

Reggio Emilia is a city of altars — to childhood, to imagination, and to the spirit of shared governance and democratic participation. It is magical, but not in a precious way; it is revolutionary, but only because it has had the time and space to evolve; and it is illustrative, but not because it is prescriptive or straight-forward. In Reggio, the whole is always more that the sum of its parts. There are no shortcuts. And yet the path is as clear as can be.

To understand why, you must first travel back to 1945, when, after four years of worldwide war and two decades of domestic terrorism, a group of local residents made an unexpected (and unintended) discovery: one tank, six horses, and three trucks that were left behind by fleeing Nazi troops.

After some discussion, it became clear that by selling what they had found, the townspeople could underwrite an initial investment in their post-war future, and begin to write a new history in the wake of all that had been lost.

The men wanted to build a cinema. The women, a school.

Fortunately, the women won, and within weeks, the construction was underway. A young man named Loris Malaguzzi heard what was happening, and hopped on his bicycle to see for himself. “There were piles of sand and bricks,” he recalled, “a wheelbarrow full of hammers, shovels and hoes. Behind a curtain made of rugs to shield them from the sun, two women were hammering the old mortar off the bricks.

“We’re not crazy!” they exclaimed, unprompted. “If you really want to see, come on Saturday or Sunday, when we’re all here. We’re really going to make this school!”

For Malaguzzi, an elementary school teacher in a nearby town who would in time become the ceremonial leader of the the Reggio network, it was a life-changing moment. “It forced everything back to the beginning. It opened up completely new horizons of thought. I sensed that it was a formidable lesson of humanity and culture, which would generate other extraordinary events. All we needed to do was to follow the same path.”

The bedrock of that path was illuminated by a disturbing wartime lesson about humanity. “Mussolini and the fascists made us understand that obedient human beings are dangerous human beings,” he explained. “When we decided to build a new society after the war we understood that we needed to have schools in which children dared to think for themselves, and where children got the conditions for becoming active and critical citizens.”

Consequently, after seven decades of tinkering and revision, what a visitor will see in Reggio’s schools today are a series of design choices and principles that run counter to the way most of the world does ‘school.’

The goal is not knowledge; it’s communication

In Reggio schools, all adults believe that all children have at their disposal a hundred different languages — and that typically, “the school steals ninety-nine.” By languages, these adults do not mean merely the use of words, but also clay, paper, color, joy, imagination — anything that can help a child communicate his or her inner thoughts with the people around them. “We have not correctly legitimized a culture of childhood,” says Lella Gandini, a longtime Reggio teacher, “and the consequences are seen in all our social, economic, and political choices and investments.”

To counter this, Reggio’s schools are relentlessly child-centered — not to achieve notable results in literacy and numeracy, but to achieve notable qualities of identity formation and to ensure that all children know how to belong to a community. “Our approach offers children the opportunity to realize their ideas are different and that they hold a unique point of view,” said Gandini. “At the same time, children realize that the world is multiple and that other children can be discovered through a negotiation of ideas. Instead of interacting only through feelings and a sense of friendship, they discover how satisfying it is to exchange ideas and thereby transform their environment.”

I know, I know. It sounds amazing, but how do you actually teach that? What’s the curriculum in a Reggio school?

The curriculum is not fixed; it’s emergent

By design, Reggio schools were created to protect children from what Malaguzzi called the ‘prophetic pedagogy,’ or an education built on predetermined knowledge that got delivered bit by bit — a format Malaguzzi felt was humiliating for both teachers and children because of the ways it denied their ingenuity and emergent potential.

Consequently, Reggio teachers have no predetermined curricula (as the behaviorists would like), but neither do they work as constant improvisers. Instead, every year each school delineates a series of related projects, some short-range and some long. These themes serve as the main structural supports, but then, as Malaguzzi says, “it is up to the children, the course of events, and the teachers to determine whether the building turns out to be a hut on stilts or an apartment house or whatever. The teachers follow the children, not plans.”

To see this in action is part of what makes Reggio so magical, and the central feature it requires is a very different notion on the part of adults as to what their central role is, and is not. In this sense, teachers (and there are two in every classroom) are not there to deliver content, but to activate the meaning-making competencies of all children. As Malaguzzi put it, “they must try to capture the right moments, and then find the right approaches, for bringing together, into a fruitful dialogue, their meanings and interpretations with those of the children.”

Context, in other words, matters more than content. And the physical environment, after adults and peers, is the third teacher.

The space is not ancillary; it’s exalted

This is why every Reggio schools feels like a collection of altars. Great care is given to the construction of space, and to the conditions into which children will explore their hundred languages. Intricate patterns of stones snake through an outdoor courtyard, inviting children to continue the pattern, or to begin a new one. A bright orange slide cuts through thick stalks of bamboo, just because. The art materials are ubiquitous, and organized, and easily accessible. And the boundary between inside and outside is always as permeable as possible.

Here, the light is always able to come in.

It’s why Malaguzzi called the physical environment the Third Teacher. And it’s what led the celebrated psychologist Jerome Bruner to take particular note of a group of four-year-old children who were projecting shadows onto a wall on the day of his visit. “The concentration was absolute, but even more surprising was the freedom of exchange in expressing their imaginative ideas about what was making the shadows so odd, why they got smaller and swelled up or, as one child asked: “How does a shadow get to be upside down?” The teacher behaved as respectfully as if she had been dealing with Nobel Prize winners. Everyone was thinking out loud: “What do you mean by upside down?” asked another child.

“Here we were not dealing with individual imaginations working separately,” Bruner concluded. “We were collectively involved in what is probably the most human thing about human beings, what psychologists and primate experts now like to call ‘intersubjectivity,’ which means arriving at a mutual understanding of what others have in mind. It is probably the extreme flowering of our evolution as humanoids, without which our human culture could not have developed, and without which all our intentional attempts at teaching something would fail.”


The community is not apart; it’s integral

That sense of intersubjectivity is everywhere in Reggio Emilia; it is, in fact, the clearest measure of the school’s longitudinal success. As former mayor Graziano Delrio put it, “We in Reggio Emilia believe that we should manage our cities with the objective of building an equal community, acting for the common good of citizens to guarantee equal dignity and equal rights. We assert the right of children to education from birth. The child is therefore a competent citizen. He or she is competent in assuming responsibility for the city. I often quote this statement by John Adams, the second president of the United States: “Public happiness exists where citizens can take part responsibly for public good and public life. Everywhere, there are men, women, children, whether old or young, rich or poor, tall or short, wise or foolish . . . everyone is highly motivated by a desire of being seen, heard, considered, approved and respected by the people around him and known by him.”

Indeed, the success of Reggio schools would not have been sustained without meaningful partnership and support from its elected leaders. Today, almost 20% of the city’s budget goes towards its early childhood education programs. There is no neighborhood more desirable than another because of the schools; the system has equity throughout. Parents are integral to the success of each school, and play an active role in shared governance. And the spirit of civic participation here, in a city founded by the Romans in the second century B.C., and in a community that can trace its collectivist tendencies back to the craft guilds and communal republics of the medieval 14th century, is what led a mayor of an Industrial city in Northern Italy to proclaim that the infant-toddler centers are “public common spaces where the multitudes aim to become a community of people growing together with a strong sense of the future, a strong idea of participation, of living together, of taking care, one for others. The school expresses the society through which it is generated, but school is also able to generate a new society.”

The bedrock is not love; it’s respect

Finally, this.

It is easy to imagine that all we need to do is love children more, or give them more space, and the rest will take care of itself. But what I witnessed in Reggio was less a case of adults loving children — though surely, they did. Instead, what I witnessed was a level of listening, attention, and care that came from an unwavering belief that all children, even the newest among us, are social beings, predisposed, and possessing from birth a readiness to make significant ties with others, to communicate, and to find one’s place in the world of others.

“We think of school for young children as an integral living organism,” said Malaguzzi, “as a place of shared lives and relationships among many adults and many children. We think of school as a sort of construction in motion, continuously adjusting itself. Either a school is capable of continually transforming itself in response to children, or the school becomes something that goes around and around, remaining in the same spot.”

This is the path. These are the ingredients. But none of it is possible until, as the great theorist David Hawkins once said, we realize that “the more magic gift is not love, but respect for others as ends in themselves, as actual and potential artisans of their own learnings and doings, of their own lives, and thus uniquely contributing, in turn, to their learnings and doings.

“Respect for the young is not a passive, hands-off attitude. It invites our own offering of resources. It moves us toward the furtherance of their lives and thus, even, at times, toward remonstrance or intervention. Respect resembles love in its implicit aim of furtherance, but love without respect can blind and bind. Love is private and unbidden, whereas respect is implicit in all moral relations with others. Adults involved in the world of man and nature must bring that world with them to children, bounded and made safe to be sure, but not thereby losing its richness and promise of novelty.”


To learn more about the Reggio Children Foundation, and/or to register for an International Study Group, visit https://www.reggiochildren.it/?lang=en

At Blue School, the Learning is Alive (Literally)

Gina Farrar is not your typical New York City school leader.

For starters, she’s from the deep South — although any remnants of a Southern twang have long since disappeared. She’s also quiet and friendly  — the sort of person who likes going to restaurants in the middle of the afternoon, or smiling at kids on the train.

Then there’s her formal education:  a double major in Dance and Mathematics, followed by a PhD in Psychology. Although this is where, if you follow the pattern, Gina Farrar’s career path starts to make sense. “What attracted me to math and dance is that each is a puzzle,” she told me one recent fall morning. “The ways that math is a puzzle are obvious, but ballet is a puzzle, too — how your body fits together, how the steps fit together. And there’s a lot of technique involved, but it’s only when you master the technique that you can soar.”

The same can be said for Blue School, a decade-old independent school in lower Manhattan that Gina leads, and which was created by the founders of Blue Man Group, the global theatrical phenomenon that was designed to inspire creativity in both audience and performer.

To many, that riddle — how to inspire creativity — is the Holy Grail of school reform in 2018. Back in 2006, however, it was little more than a nugget of an idea that turned into a small parent playgroup in lower Manhattan. Soon thereafter, it grew into a full-blown school — albeit one whose theories about teaching and learning were both intriguing and unproven. And now, Blue School has evolved into something I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else in my travels — a school community that is, both literally and figuratively, a living organism, and a theory of learning that has, over a decade of strict scrutiny, constant tinkering, and loving care, developed a full-blown pedagogy as worthy of replication as its more famous single-name forebears:

Montessori. Reggio. Waldforf.


To understand how it happened, you need to begin with the idea that anchors both the Group and the School: a colorful wheel of archetypal lenses for how human beings see and make sense of the world.

As Blue Man Group and Blue School co-founder Matt Goldman puts it, these lenses evolved as the founding Blue Men designed their characters. Each pair of lenses, which are positioned opposite one another on the wheel, represent polar ways in which we are likely to see ourselves (and be seen by others). Our culture is rife with examples of the archetypal Hero, for example, yet almost barren when it comes to equivalent celebrations of the Innocent. We are more likely to value the mindset of the Scientist over that of the Artist. And despite our country’s revolutionary origins, you’re still more likely to gain points in your local community as a Group Member than a Trickster.

This is why the Blue Men, over the course of a two-hour show, spend time inhabiting all six lenses, and modeling for people what it looks like when you check All of the Above in the multiple choice question of What Does It Mean to be a Human Being. As Goldman puts it, “We wanted to speak up to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching in to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than is usually evident out in the real world. We wanted to recombine influences to create something new. And we wanted to have a good time doing it.”

That sensibility is also at the center of Blue School, which is equal parts ritualistic, research-y, and rebellious. At weekly community meetings, for example, kids and adults take time to celebrate these different ways of being, as a way to reinforce the extent to which all six are equally valued. “I saw the Trickster in Dana yesterday,” said one young student on the day I visited, “when we walked to the park and she asked us if we had heard of any mysterious mishaps in the area.” Moments later a teacher added that he “saw the Innocent and the Artist in Mati when she was working really intently and precisely to draw negative space.”

Beyond culture-building rituals, Blue School also works proactively to translate the latest research on cognitive science and child development into all classroom practices and professional development courses. Its teachers are deeply experienced practitioners. And its initial emphasis on archetypal lenses, playful mischief, and joyful learning has since grown into what Blue School calls the Balance Model — a richly visual comprehensive learning framework that is equal parts Academic Mastery, Self & Social Intelligence, and Creative Thinking; that proclaims the school’s determination to cultivate Adaptable Thinkers, Collaborative Problem-Solvers, and Irrepressible Innovators; and that outlines Blue School’s intention to cultivate a specific set of habits of mind in its students, from Openness and Empathy to Literacy and Self-Expression.

“There are so many ingredients that have gone into making this school work,” said Farrar. “And now we find ourselves in a position where we’re able to provide all these different conditions in which different kids can flourish. That’s the thing about schools — they don’t hold a static amount of energy; the energy is exponential. And when you’re feeling creative and relaxed socially, and when there’s real clarity of expectations, that’s when it becomes magical.”

One day after school, just a few weeks into the 2018-2019 school year, I asked Blue School’s three divisional directors — Laura Sedlock (Pre-Primary), Pat Lynch (Primary School), and Laurie Kardos (Middle School) — exactly how these different pieces had come together to wield such a place. After all, it’s one thing to know an expensive private school in New York City has found a way to be magical. The real question is, to what extent is that magic transferable — to all schools, and all types of communities?  

“All the things that look un-magical are what creates the space for the magical things to happen — here or anywhere else,” said Sedlock, a New York native with nearly two decades of experience in early childhood education. “Almost everything flows from our ability to answer two questions: What does it mean to really observe children? And how do we document each child’s learning more meaningfully?”

As an example, Sedlock pointed to an essential element of Blue School’s Primary program: “Big Study,” in which the children go deep on a particular subject over an extended period. Many schools have something similar, and usually, the subject of study is set in stone: the 5th grade will study ancient Egypt, the 2nd grade will study Ants, and so on. “But if we’re serious about listening deeply to children, we can’t project out that far. We have to remain nimble and go where they take us. It’s the children’s excitement that will lead to the big study, not a predetermined topic by the adults. But that requires a different skill-set than we’re used to as teachers.”

Pat Lynch agreed. “Our teachers have worked to become highly skilled at knowing that the best instructional fodder is right in front of them, and it’s unfolding in real time. Our role as leaders is to protect the space that allows our teachers to do that work. It’s very emergent.”

Indeed, emergent is a word you hear often at Blue School, and it’s illustrative of what makes the Blue School Pedagogy distinct. Spend a day there, and at all levels you’ll see students and teachers working on established courses of study — and wandering off in spontaneous directions. It’s an intellectual high-wire act — more jazz than classical — and it made me wonder what Blue School’s teachers have done to build the confidence that is required to teach this way.

“I think a real danger is to think that the solution is simply not to plan or have goals or to just give yourself over to the whims of whatever the kids want to do at any given moment,” said 4th grade teacher Ashley Semrick. “It’s the opposite, actually: it won’t work unless you have really clear goals for both individual kids and the larger group. The ability to be emergent as an individual flows from our ability as a group to have clear schoolwide intentions. Our job is to read what’s happening on any given day, and then to flexibly adjust as needed.”

How long did it take you to feel comfortable teaching this way, I asked her. “I remember back in grad school,” she responded, “someone told me that when things get rough as a teacher, you’ll just revert back to the educational standard you experienced as a student — even if that standard didn’t serve you well. Well, I can safely say that a decade into teaching, I am only now escaping that truth. It’s taken me that long to really trust that my kids always have something meaningful to say. That has made all the difference.”

“It’s taken several years for us to reach that point collectively as well,” added Laurie Kardos, who leads the school’s brand new Middle school division. “This is the first year I’ve felt like we aren’t in start-up mode. I don’t think there’s any way around that as an organization — you need to struggle with it — but for us, the work was in picking the things we wanted to align around, and then using each other to work on those things. What we’ve created is a space with the right balance of flexibility, choice, theatricality, precision, trust, compassion and autonomy. And with our experience has come a deeper ability to plan for the unexpected, not just for kids to learn something new but to become more effective at building off what they already know — and then to assess what they know not just at the end of the year but at every moment. That’s what gives this place life.”

It’s true — Blue School is alive, both literally and figuratively; even the scientists would agree. “We have discovered that the material world is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships,” writes physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, “and that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. Life, then, is an emergent property. It cannot be reduced to the properties of its components. Social networks exhibit the same general principles as biological networks. What is valid for cellular life can be considered valid for any form of life. And the essence of life is integration.

“Organisms do not experience environments. They create them.”

As a result of these insights, Capra and many others — from a wide range of scientific fields — have concluded that “cognition operates on many levels, and as the sophistication of the organism grows, so does its sensorium for the environment, and so does the extent of co-emergence between organism and environment.”

There’s that word again. But what does being emergent have to do with making magic — and what needs to happen so that the magic might travel beyond Blue School’s walls?

If you ask the educators of Blue School, they’d say any recipe is a result of the sophistication of the learning culture they have steadily grown over time — the gradual mastery of technique, perhaps, that has allowed them to soar. They’d say it’s the intentional creation of a physical environment that is meant to reflect the values of the community that inhabits it.  And they’d say it’s their paradoxical willingness to be both highly structured and completely free — to ground the learning in a discrete set of lenses, or to craft a a Balance Model — and at the same time to protect the space and autonomy of the teachers to go wherever the children lead them at any given moment. Consequently, to visit Blue School is to experience it not just as a school, but as an actual living organism — an ecosystem unto itself, one that is both self-organizing and self-aware.

Which leads to the most radical, and replicable, observation of all. “In a nutshell,” Capra says, “nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature.

“The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community” — no matter where those communities may be.

This, then, is the work.

What are the central elements of a healthy human identity?

What are you wondering about these days? What are you struggling with? What is becoming clear to you?

My answer to all of these questions relates to a new book we’re writing, and to our ongoing search to identify the irreducible elements of identity — the qualities and dispositions that we need in order to preserve, protect, defend, champion, encourage and honor the human spirit (and to do so at this exact moment of decadence, division, and decline).

Towards that end, I just finished Margaret Wheatley’s new book, Who Do We Choose to Be (go read it!), and as I did, I jotted down some of the qualities that I think are element-al to our development of a healthy self and spirit.

As of this moment, these feel all or mostly right to me, meaning they are truly foundational to almost anything else that matters:
Then there are other qualities I jotted down that make me wonder if they are distinct or actually sub-properties of the former. For example —
HUMILITY (as a product of levity?)
COOPERATION (as an offshoot of belonging?)
VIGILANCE (as an indicator of awareness?)
GENTLENESS (as the inevitable result of compassion?)
And then there is everything else.
What I’m wondering is, what would YOU add, change or modify? Who do you feel we need to become in order to serve as Warriors of the Human Spirit — knowing that, once we have identified them, we can begin to recalibrate our schools, communities and organizations in order to help bring those qualities more fully into being?

This is what it looks like when a community designs its own school

At its best, nothing is more unifying and vital to a community’s civic health than a high-quality neighborhood school. Why, then, do all notions of “school choice” end up being about either charter or private schools?

Enter Oakland SOL, a new dual-immersion middle school in the Flatlands section of Oakland, California — and the district’s first new school in more than a decade.

Created over three years of hard work and careful planning by a motivated group of local parents and educators, Oakland SOL paints a different picture of school choice — one that is squarely grounded in the aspirations of the families and children who will comprise its community core.

To some, it’s a murky picture. After all, Oakland’s school district already has more schools than it can afford; it faces up to a $30 million budget shortfall. Yet when you consider that after fifth grade, one of every four students in the district leaves the system, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel is making a different sort of bet — one that will require districts to become more responsive to local needs and demands.

“If we can provide programs that help them make the choice to stay in our district, I actually do think that’s fiscally responsible,” said Katherine Carter, SOL’s founding principal. “It shows the district cares about creating quality experiences for our kids and our families.”

“This was really rooted in parent demand,” added Gloria Lee, president and chief executive of a local nonprofit that supports new public school options. “I hope it is the first and not the only example of a way the district can continue to evolve and create new innovative programs that serve the really diverse families in Oakland more effectively.”

We know more than we think we do.

Now is the time for a new learning story.


Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice

(a draft introduction of my new book — feedback of all sorts welcomed and encouraged.)


Unlike the others, who set off in teams to look for the twigs, branches, and leaves they would weave together to capture the essence of their school, Laura Graber searched the ground around her, alone.

It was unlike her – the person most responsible for bringing this group together in the first place to launch the Green Earth Bilingual Public Charter School from scratch, and the person most committed to doing so democratically. But now it was June, and the inaugural year was over, and the staff of twenty-one women and two men was completing its last shared activity before the start of the summer, when the size of their team would double, when they would pack up all the records and wires and playthings and poster boards and move to a new building across town, and when the glow of what had just been accomplished would start to fade in exchange for a renewed anxiety of all the new challenges to be overcome.

Laura leaned down and grabbed a branch, thin and moldable. The spot of Rock Creek Park she was in was right next to the spot she’d gone running all year to maintain her sense of balance – the only time of the week when no one could demand anything of her, and there was no problem to solve.

Teams of teachers returned to the main clearing by the creek. Cassie Hurst came back speaking with her usual energy and excitement about what she’d found and what the group should do. Jessica Rodriguez and Beth LaPenn chatted away in Spanish, their minds on their summer adventure in Madrid, just days away. And Dora Benitez was already steeling herself to be one of the ones to get in the water, because that’s what her dad would have expected of his Dolly.

Before walking to the park from the school, which would soon become just another floor in a downtown office building, Hallie Schmidt showed everyone picture books of the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy. Each page held images of evanescent sculptures Goldsworthy had made with only the materials nature provided: Circles of reconstituted icicles. Potholes along a stream filled with bright yellow dandelions. Lines of white wool along a dark stone fence.

The group decided their own sculpture would be a circle of branches, to reflect the spirit of the Oglala Lakota poem Dora had shared with them:

In the Circle, we are all equal. When in the circle,

No one is in front of you. No one is behind you.

No one is above you. No one is below you.

Some bent stacks of sticks into shape, while others wove together the many gradients of green – grass, leaves, brush – into a long, crooked line that would, they decided, form a path to lay across the center of the circle. It was always the same, Hallie thought as she watched these young people work, remembering the first cabin she and her husband had built, and then lost to a fire the night they moved in: you gather your materials, you consult your plans, you make your final decisions, and then you build the house.

     *  *  *

The Sutpen Elementary School parade began in a small park at the confluence of five city streets and three city neighborhoods. For months the weather had been cooler than usual, but by a mid-morning in June it was still hot enough to keep most of the adults huddled under the shade of the park’s aging oak trees, each group chatting casually in a different mother tongue: Vietnamese, Spanish, Amharic, English. A police car idled at the base of the street that bore the name of the neighborhood it served – Mount Pleasant – and waited for the parade to begin.

As teachers orchestrated the final arrangements – cheerleaders up front, drum and bugle corps to follow, and flag bearers representing every nation in the community picking up the rear – nine-year-old Lourdes adjusted the yellow “Nuestra Escuela” t-shirt across her sleight shoulders and grabbed hold of the large, wide Sutpen banner with three other students. As they walked to the front of the line, past a sea of family members holding cameras and camcorders, Lourdes knew not to look for a familiar face. She wouldn’t see her dad until she boarded the plane to spend the summer with him in Texas, and she had learned long ago it was best not to think about where Mami might be at any given moment. She watched the spinning lights at the top of the police car and imagined the parade was already over so she could be back on the soccer field blazing down the sideline, past all the boys, to score another goal and remind everyone how strong she really was.

The police car started crawling up the street, and the cheerleaders began their rhythmic chant: SUT-PEN! The last remaining students and adults emerged from the shade of the trees to fall in line, while a phalanx of mothers with younger children formed an impromptu stroller brigade at the back.

Lourdes watched the people gathering in interest as the parade progressed down the street. Three heads poked out of a window above the 24-hour Laundromat. A man with a lathered face got out of his chair to stand on the top step of the Pan American barbershop.  An elderly woman sipped coffee from a mug on the porch of her aging Victorian, while younger children – future Bancroft students – weaved their tricycles in between the foot traffic of the sidewalk.

As they reached the midway point of the street, Lourdes could see the white canopies of the neighborhood farmer’s market – just past the Best World supermarket on one side of the street, and the blackened facade of the burned-out apartment building on the other. Like everyone else, Lourdes had friends that had lived there and been displaced, the letters of the sign they hung in the first weeks after the tragedy starting to fade in the summer sun: HELP ME RETURN TO OUR HOME.

Two blocks away, Sutpen’s principal, Kim Ortiz, was preparing the back of the school for the parade’s arrival. Parent volunteers set up the barbeque pit and sorted the hamburgers, hot dogs, and churros for quick cooking. Another group set up the moon bounce just beyond the dunking booth – her students always loved the chance to drop their principal into a tank of cold water.

Ms. Ortiz listened for the sound of the drums.

The year had not gone the way she had hoped – far from it, really. She’d endured two different parent insurrections. She’d struggled to gain support from her staff for a new style of classroom teaching. And she had just learned that two of her best in that new style, “the Two Sarahs,” would not be returning. Yet there were days like this that always seemed to come along at just the right time to remind her why she became an educator – days when a neighborhood’s children and families would come together and remind each other that they were participating in the same dream: to unite all the children of a single community under a single roof in order to give them all an equal shot at success.

*  *  *

Imagine a year in the life of two different communities – a public charter school that was opening its doors for the very first time, and a neighborhood public school that first opened its doors in 1924.

In the fall of 2011, I embarked on a yearlong observation of these two schools, and of the city they exist to serve: Washington, DC.

Like other major American cities, the nation’s capital is experimenting with a new concept that is dramatically reshaping public education – school choice. In the past, choosing whether to “pay or stay” was something only the wealthy could do; the rest of us merely sent our kids to the local school and hoped for the best. Now, however, in cities like DC, lower- and middle-class parents are also considering a wider set of options – and confronting a wider array of obstacles. Although less than 3% of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools – public institutions with greater freedom to pilot different approaches to teaching, learning and governance – 41% of DC’s students are enrolled in such schools, including brand-new ones like Green Earth. At the same time, many of the city’s most promising traditional public schools are receiving an increasing number of applications from families that live outside its neighborhood boundaries. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, nearly half of Sutpen’s students lived outside the school’s attendance zone.

Consequently, although the majority of children in rural and suburban America still attend their neighborhood school, fewer and fewer urban families are doing so, opting instead to enter the chaotic and nascent marketplace of school choice, and participating in a great intra-city migration of families, each in search of a school and a community they can claim as their own.

This move toward greater school choice is particularly vital – and potentially dangerous – when one considers that public education is the only institution in American society that is guaranteed to reach 90% of every new generation, that is governed by public authority, and that was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society.

In this new frontier, will the wider array of school options help parents and educators identify better strategies for helping all children learn – strategies that can then be shared for the benefit of all schools? Or will the high stakes of the marketplace lead us to guard our best practices, undermine our colleagues, and privatize this most public of institutions?

I have written Our School because I believe that before we can answer these questions, we must first understand what good teaching and learning really looks like – and requires. And we must become familiar with the state of the field as it is – and as it ought to be. The specific landscape of school choice may be new, but the general challenge is as old as the country itself: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.

Stories of Transformation: Blue (School) Skies Ahead

It was fifteen years ago, but I still remember the first time I saw Blue Man Group. Watching those bald blue aliens discover how to eat a Twinkie, or investigate the queasy vibrations of a giant Jello cake, or climb the walls of the theater to learn more about the people who were sitting there – well, anyone who’s seen the show knows there’s nothing quite like it.

Since that time, Blue Man Group has become an international phenomenon, and an unlikely aesthetic portal through which to vicariously experience the wonders of inquiry, discovery and mischief. And now, those same core ingredients are at the heart of a remarkable new school in New York City – a school I got to visit and see through the eyes of two of its founders, “Blue Man” Matt Goldman and his wife, Renee Rolleri.

“Blue Man Group started in the 1980s as this outrageous idea,” Matt explained, shortly after we entered the school’s kinetic entry hall on a recent Friday morning and placed our shoes amidst a beehive of cardboard storage tubes lining the walls. “Our goal was to inspire creativity in our audiences and ourselves. We wanted to speak ‘up’ to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching ‘in’ to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than we typically find in the ‘real world.’ And we wanted to have fun doing it.”

By the mid-2000s, their oddball idea now a full-fledged, flowering franchise, Matt, fellow founding Blue Men Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, and their wives formed a parent-run playgroup. Soon thereafter, they realized the same principles that formed the foundation for a successful theatrical performance could also be at the center of a successful school. “Better still,” Renee added, “those principles might even help spur a re-imagining of education for a new era, and a restoration of some of what this recent era of test-driven accountability has cast aside.”

The school’s mission statement spells out the core ingredients such a re-imagining will require: “cultivating creative, joyful and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.” And all of these characteristics are visibly on display for anyone who visits the school’s building on Water Street, formerly the Seamen’s Church Institute, near the southern tip of Manhattan. Student artwork is ubiquitous, from paintings to sculptures to support beams that have been turned into trees. Every floor has a common space that the children are responsible for decorating. A construction lab features a treasure chest of wooden blocks of all sizes, and everyone likes to spend time in the “wonder room” – a black-lighted, fully padded playspace with a disco floor – yes, a disco floor. Otherwise-drab hallways are brought to life with pastel colors, feathers, and fabric. And each classroom is anchored by adults who are deeply skilled in progressive teaching practices that date back more than one hundred years.

In that sense, aside from its distinctive decorative flourishes, much of what the Blue School does is not new, and does not claim to be. After all, John Dewey knew a thing or two about how people learn, and as Renee pointed out, “Dewey’s Lab School was both a destination for learning and a base camp for cultivating culture. That’s what we want here as well.”

However, two components of the Blue School’s program are new – groundbreaking, even – and the rest of us would be wise to take notice.

The first is the school’s educational framework, which takes its organizing principles directly from the personality profile of the Blue Man himself. “When we were designing the show,” Matt explained, “we imagined the characters seeing and interacting with the world like children do. The Blue Man continually explores and researches the world around him. So we imagined him doing so via six different lenses:

  1. The Group Member – the lens of collaboration, connection, and global citizenship
  2. The Scientist – the lens of curiosity, critical thinking, experimentation and analysis
  3. The Hero – the lens of perseverance, commitment and leadership
  4. The Trickster – the lens of provocation, innovation, and play
  5. The Artist – the lens of imagination, instinct and creative expression
  6. The Innocent – the lens of emotional awareness and mindfulness

“These six lenses are mindsets or approaches children, teachers, and others in our community can assume to explore work, academic areas, an environment, and materials,” Matt shared while we watched a cluster of four-year-olds make mud in their airy, light-filled classroom. “We want to teach our kids how to surf in all of those different energies. And we want to help them develop critical life skills and practices along the way.”

An educational framework organized around archetypal personalities, each of which is mapped to different core attributes that combine to make up a creative, joyful and compassionate person? I have never seen another school organized in such a way, and the elegance of the design extends to which lenses are likely to be most compatible with which components of the curriculum (which, befitting a progressive school, is negotiated between children and adults, and which therefore largely unfolds in real time based on expressed student interests). This is what makes Renee proudest. “We’re still learning, but so far we’ve been able to create a healthy, warm, safe, nurturing environment where community is paramount and where children’s interactions between classes are just as important as what happens during classes. It’s the kind of educational program I wish I’d had for myself and which we all dreamed we’d have for our children – a place where people feel like there is genuinely no better place to learn and to grow.”

What makes the Blue School’s framework even more exciting is its commitment to explicitly link everything it does to the latest research about how the brain works, and about how people learn. As Renee explained, “we know there is a broad range of expectations within each age group and that the rate of development varies greatly between children. This is why we believe age doesn’t matter nearly as much as sequence. There are clear developmental progressions that children experience – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and linguistically – and no one experiences any of them at quite the same pace. Why, then, do we continue to educate children in a linear, grade-by-grade process, when the research clearly tells us that this is not how people learn?”

Lindsey Russo, the school’s director of curriculum documentation and research, agrees. “Schools were not applying this new neurological science out there to how we teach children,” she said in a recent article profiling the school in the New York Times. “Our aim is to take those research tools and adapt them to what we do in the school.”

Consequently, children at the Blue School learn directly about the different regions of their brains, and what thoughts and behaviors they control. Adults speak daily about the importance of meta-cognition and helping children develop “supported autonomy.” And school leaders seek advice and feedback from leading scholars like UCLA neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel and NeuroLeadership Institute co-founder David Rock.

“Teaching and learning are reciprocal processes that depend upon and affect one another,” Renee said, smiling, as a phalanx of strollers and parents surrounded her. “We just hope our school can be one of the places to help us understand, as a country, how to support those processes in ways that help as many people as possible unleash their wildest, most beautiful selves on the world we all share.”

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Tribal Leadership, Chicago & Organizational Culture

I’m in Chicago this week attending the National Charter Schools Conference, and on the plane this morning I continued reading a book that was recommended to me last week by Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, called Tribal Leadership.

It’s a fascinating book to be reading as we prepare to start a completely new school. And as someone who has written previously about the prevalence of the wrong sort of business thinking in school reform, I’m struck by how poorly most of my field’s most visible leaders heed the authors’ advice.

To test this theory, check out the following quotations and post a comment to let me know if you think it sounds a lot like (or unlike) any of our current national figures in education:

  1. (Describing a hospital that had effectively remade itself) — “The leaders spent most of their efforts building strong relationships between the company’s employees, volunteers, and patients. Instead of telling people what to do, they engineered experiences in which staff members would look at the same issues they were dealing with, so that strategy became everyone’s problem. And they got out of the way and let people contribute in their own way to the emerging goals.”
  2. (Describing a dehumanizing organizational culture) — “Within this sort of culture, knowledge is power, so people hoard it. People at this stage have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors,’ wanting help and support and being continually disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. Because they have to do the tough work (remembering that others just aren’t as savvy) , their complaint is that they don’t have enough time or competent support.”
  3. (Describing the late 19th/early 20th century origins of our public education system) — “The solution was to train a new generation of workers by teaching them inside a system that looked a lot like a factory. A star pupil is one who does the homework and has the right answers. This new system undid the classical liberal education, which said that the value was in the well-designed question, and this shift in focus made the worker exploitable. The system didn’t emphasize creative thinking, strategizing, leadership or innovation. Stars were smart conformists, and people who stuck to the pattern became model students . That approach also bred the “I’m great (and you’re not)” mentality, based on homework, grades, and knowing the right answer. It does not emphasize empowerment, creativity, or individual satisfaction.”

The main point of the authors — who, although they may sound like Linda Darling-Hammond or John Dewey, are actually career business consultants — is that the best leaders are those that “focus on two things, and only two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Words, because they shape how we view the world and our place in it; and relationships, because without a strong amount of trust, transparency, and mutual accountability, the best you can hope for is short-term (illusory) change.

I can understand why we must be mindful of tending to these insights as we grow our school from the ground up. What I can’t understand is why doing so puts us largely at odds with the most visible “reformers” of our day.