Your Education Stories (for a price)

It’s suddenly in vogue to gather and tell stories as part of an organization’s larger strategy to build an audience and effect change. On one level, I love this development — indeed, I’ve been gathering people’s stories about their most powerful learning experiences for years, which has resulted in a website, a radio story series, and even a book (proceeds of which do not go to me, by the way).

I’ve done this because I believe that before we can solve the riddle of how to provide every child with a great education, we need to develop a deeper understand of what great teaching and learning really looks like — and requires. That is the motive. Over time I’ve also reflected a lot on the core elements of a great story — one that can inspire and edify — and tried to apply those principles in the current 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill. Like all things, it’s a work in progress, but we’re clearly onto something — as the appeal of this Prezi attests.

Yesterday, however, I received an email from Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, relating to an effort underway there to gather people’s stories about why they choose to put students first. We’re told that Michelle nodded along as she read “the same frustrations and motivations that drive me to action reflected in their responses.” And we’re told that 100 lucky submitters will receive a signed copy of her new memoir, Radical.

I clicked on the link to read the stories, and a couple of things became quite clear: first, these are not stories. People aren’t being asked — nor are they being given space — to share a personal narrative; they’re being given an opportunity to reaffirm the professional rationale of Students First. And second, it’s clear that organizations like Students First don’t actually give a damn about individual people’s stories. They care about selling books, acquiring new email addresses and demonstrating the reach of their current network.

Those things, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily bad strategy — and they certainly aren’t evil. What they are, however, is indicative of Michelle Rhee’s impersonal approach to systemic change. And I can’t think of anything more ironic than a nationally-known “radical” reformer for schools — the most personal public space that exists outside the family in our society — who believes that, in the end, something as sacred as a person’s personal story is little more than a convenient framing device for giving away free books and building out an email list.

Buyer beware.

(This article also appeared on Huffington Post.)

How to Tell a Good Learning Story

(This article originally appeared in Education Week).

Last week, at the New Teacher Center’s 15thannual conference in San Jose, I urged more than 700 educators to start telling their own stories about teaching and learning, and to stop letting outside forces pigeonhole public perceptions of the work that they do

The talk went well (view the Prezi below and decide for yourself), but I worried afterwards that all I’d done was suggest a compelling path forward – and provide little else.

A friend in the crowd confirmed this. “Everyone loved the ideas,” she told me collegially, “but I’m not sure anyone understands how to tell their story more effectively now than they did before.”

I think that’s right. So let me do here what I didn’t do there – by offering some specific suggestions about how to provide a more hopeful, solution-oriented lens to our work.

Decouple and Recouple: Let’s face it: most education coverage is boring. That’s because we’re always doing one of two things: we’re either reporting on reports, or we’re trying to explicate promising practices. The result of this is a sea of stories about education that are heavy on the facts and the how-tos – and light on the personal narratives and the professional inspiration.

This “emotion gap” presents us all with a huge opportunity, as long as we realize that a great story needs to do two things well: it must touch us, and it must teach us something new.

In the modern world, we don’t have to touch and teach in a single video or article. Instead, we can decouple the inspiration from the edification – and then recouple them online.

As an example, consider what we’re doing with A Year at Mission Hill. Every other week until June, we’ll release a new 5-minute video that tracks a year in the life of a great public school. The purpose of these videos is to help you feel the power of a healthy school culture by letting you observe how it unfolds and develops over time. Invariably, you’ll see lots of promising practices in the course of the series – teachers co-constructing curricula, children developing higher-order thinking skills, etc. – but any explanations of how to do these things well have been decoupled from the story itself, and then recoupled online via a rich set of wraparound resources for anyone that wants to go deeper and initiate similar efforts in their own school.

We should do more of this in education: elevate the stories of the people in our schools – the children, their teachers, and the larger community that supports them – and then look for the ideas underpinning that work and flesh them out separately.

Serialize and Sustain: Before there was ever a single copy of Bleak House, there were the twenty monthly installments Charles Dickens published across 1852 and 1853. Point being: the appeal of serializing a story goes back a lot farther than “Must See TV.”  It is, in short, a great way to build and sustain an audience, and to create enough breathing space to let a set of characters develop and deepen over time.

For some reason, however, the idea of serializing our own stories about education never seems to have taken root (and no, a three-part series reporting on a new report doesn’t count). But it should: indeed, there is no other way to capture the scope of that nonlinear journey of personal transformation that is at the heart of powerful learning.

What if we told more stories about teachers and students and classrooms and schools in this way? Would we find better ways to build an audience, reflect the complexity of modern schooling, and inspire a better set of questions to guide our work. Again, A Year at Mission Hill is planning to find out; other schools and communities should do the same.

Reshare and Repurpose: A great story can and should serve multiple purposes. Case in point: the charter school in DC that contracted with a local filmmaker to produce a 20-minute video about their school.

First, this school decided that rather than produce a general overview video (“Welcome to . . . We are . . .”), they would select an illustrative sliver of their work and use that as the viewer’s point of entry to understand who they are and what they value. Because this school is a member of the Expeditionary Learning network, they chose to have the filmmaker follow its Kindergarten class through a three-month learning process that would culminate in a public presentation of their work.

Next, the filmmaker focused in on a few individuals who could be the human faces of the story: the classroom teacher and two of her students. Others were featured, of course, but these were the people through whose eyes we were allowed to see the work unfold. The goal, in other words, was to touch us as much as it was to teach us.

And finally, this school realized that a video like this could serve multiple purposes at once (it’s being finalized right now for a Spring 2013 release): it could be used to help parents at open houses understand what makes the school special; it could be used in fundraising efforts as a sort of visual calling card; and it could be used to spark larger community conversations about teaching and learning (plans are underway for a public screening and subsequent live radio conversation about the state of teaching and learning in DC).

Clearly, this school understands something the rest of us need to understand as well – that the stories we tell must have an appeal beyond just our own internal audience, or our own distinct community. After all, as John Merrow recently pointed out, 80% of American households do not have school-age children.

How will the opinions of those “inadvertent viewers” be shaped in the months and years ahead? How will we restore a balance to what we value in children and each other? And how can we make sure that the stories of 2013 are about more than just content, conflict, and catastrophe?

I believe these three design principles are a good start. What do you think?

A Different Story About Public Education

I know we’re already one month into 2013, but think back to last year for a second:

What were the most talked about education stories of 2012?

I’m guessing your list looks something like this – Common Core. The Chicago Teacher Strike. Newtown. And what worries me is that no matter what other stories you recalled – from Michelle Rhee to the Dropout Crisis to Race to the Top – they’re all likely to fit into one of the following categories: content, conflict, or catastrophe.

Continue reading . . .

Are Parent Trigger Laws a Good Idea?

It’s hard not to feel excited for the group of parents who successfully took over their California community’s school, and who now are dreaming of bigger things. “Our children will now get the education they deserve,” said Doreen Diaz, whose daughter attends Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto. “We are on the way to making a quality school for them, and there’s no way we will back down.”

It’s equally hard to feel confident that this story will have the ending Ms. Diaz and others envision. For starters, any proposed changes at the school won’t take place until 2013. What happens when the majority of parents who spearheaded the campaign move onto the local middle school? Will a majority of the parents who opposed the trigger seek to switch the school’s focus a second time? And with something as complex as creating a healthy school in an environment beset by poverty — 100% of the school’s students are eligible for the free lunch program — how can the members of this community become fluent around issues of teaching and learning to make thoughtful choices about the future direction of their school?

A few months back, I suggested that this debate could provide an opportunity for the nation to step up its game in two areas — making effective group decisions and understanding how people learn — via a massive national book club (hello, Oprah?).

Clearly, this will never happen. But here’s something that must: a series of well-facilitated community conversations and meetings that help all residents of the Desert Trails attendance zone imagine their ideal school, and then work backwards to make that ideal real.

A great starting point would be to ask everyone in Adelanto to share the story of the most powerful learning experience of their lives — and then to stitch those stories together in order to build a school that is designed to create those types of experiences for all kids. I’ve been gathering people’s learning stories for years now, and they all point to a small set of core conditions that any good school must possess.

In fact, I can guarantee that the sort of place the parents of Desert Trails seek will need to be challenging, engaging and supportive, and that what kids learn will need to feel relevant to their lives and be as hands-on as possible. That means any proposal disproportionately concerned with raising kids’ test scores should be rejected outright, as should any proposal that doesn’t offer kids a balanced curriculum that includes physical education, the arts, and an approach to learning that gets kids outside of the classroom and into their communities. It means throwing out any proposal that isn’t clear about how it will equally foster a child’s intellectual, social and emotional growth. It means ignoring any proposal that doesn’t directly address how it will provide wraparound services for the children and families of Adelanto, whose needs extend far beyond the schoolhouse door. And it means tossing any plan that isn’t explicit about how it will provide all of these resources in a community where school funding is still determined by local property taxes.

In other words, anything is possible — and this thing in particular is really, really hard.

Story Time

The other night, at a friend’s house for an early evening barbeque, I tried and failed repeatedly to get my 3-year-old son to eat his dinner.

It didn’t matter that the other kids at the table were eating. It didn’t matter that these were hot dogs we were talking about. And it definitely didn’t matter whether I pleaded or demanded that Leo fill his belly. He was, quite simply, not having it. And there was nothing I could do to change his mind.

Sensing my exasperation, my friend Jeremy leaned over and whispered: “Watch this.”

“Would anyone like to hear a story?” he asked. Leo stopped what he was doing, nodded, and listened intently as Jeremy spun a tale about a little boy lost in the forest who followed a single firefly, discovered a Sembar tree where all the other fireflies gathered to light up the night sky, and gained entrance to a secret, magical world.

Although there was a moral to Jeremy’s story, its message was not so symmetrical as to suggest that good boys clean their plates. And yet for the duration of the story, Leo listened, fully engaged in the wonders of an imaginary landscape, and absent-mindedly ate his dinner.

I was grateful for Jeremy’s clever parenting – and annoyed I didn’t think of it myself. After all, a convergence of recent research has confirmed something we have always instinctively known to be true: when we follow the trail of a well-crafted story, our brains light up like a Sembar tree.

Dr. James Zull is a professor of Biology at Case Western University, and the author of the book The Art of Changing the Brain. As he puts it, “We judge people by their stories, and we decide they are intelligent when their stories fit with our own stories. Recalling and creating stories are key parts of learning. We remember by connecting things with our stories, we create by connecting our stories together in unique and memorable ways, and we act out our stories in our behaviors.”

Zull says using vivid metaphors is a particularly effective way to foster new connections between the more than 100 billion neurons in a human brain. These connections are called neuronal networks, and once they’re made, they possess specific physical relationships to each other in the brain, and thus embody the concept of the relationship itself. “If you believe that learning is deepest when it engages the most parts of our brain,” Zull adds, “you can see the value of stories for the teacher. We should tell stories, create stories, and repeat stories, and we should ask our students to do the same.”

Of course, the same can be said for parents, and not just before bedtime.  If we want our children to develop the internal hardware to understand the world – and then imagine that world through the eyes of experiences of others – we should help them make sense of their surroundings through the stories we read and share. It is, quite simply, how people learn – and oh by the way, it may even help your child finish his dinner.

What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at

Name the Book Competition — We May Have a Winner!

First off, thanks are in order to everyone who has weighed in — either here or on Facebook — to offer such useful feedback on our ongoing search for a title to the forthcoming book of 50 learning stories. Yesterday, I had a long meeting with the publisher’s marketing folks, and when I explained to them the concept for the cover — a mosaic of images of either each author’s profile photo, or a montage of photos that remind them of the learning story they shared, or perhaps a combo of the two — I think we may have found our title:

Faces of Learning: 50 Inspiring Stories


The Book of Learning Stories — Title Search

I need your help in coming up with the title for the book of learning stories. Whoever submits the winning entry will get a $50 gift card to the bookstore of their choice.

Here are the three I have so far:

  1. The Learning Book: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life
  2. Learning Matters: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life
  3. “Dear Mr. Hatfield”: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life

Yes? No? Maybe? Something else? Talk to me . . .

Draft Intro for Book of Learning Stories

For anyone interested in learning a bit more about what the book will look like . . .


This is a book of different people’s stories.

Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in this collection are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

The 50 stories gathered here, along with hundreds of others, were submitted as part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grassroots effort to change the tenor of our national conversation about schooling by shifting it from a culture of testing, in which we overvalue basic-skills reading and math scores and undervalue just about everything else, to a culture of learning, in which we restore our collective focus on the core conditions of a powerful learning environment, and work backwards from there to decide how best to evaluate and improve our schools, our educators, and the progress of our nation’s schoolchildren.

In sharing their stories, our authors – who range from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself – were responding to one of two simple prompts:

  1. What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community – regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?
  2. Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective?

The purpose in asking these questions was twofold: First, to give people an opportunity to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning and teaching – rather than tell them what some “expert” thinks it is; and second, to use the insights of these stories to help people see more clearly what a powerful learning environment actually looks like – and what it requires.

Based on those insights, the stories in this book are divided into five sections – challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential. As you read them, imagine how the insights they provide might be used to strengthen the learning cultures of the schools in your neighborhood. And rather than viewing each story as a “best practice” that should be replicated and scaled up, think instead of how these authors’ collective wisdom clarifies a “best question” we should ask whenever we want to improve our schools: “How can we best support educators in their work to create schools that are more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential?”

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. Unlike any other pillar of our society, public education is the only institution that reaches 90% of every new generation, is governed by public authority, and was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society. And as these stories illuminate, the business of improving our schools doesn’t need to be a tiresome, desperate, and futile task; it can be a collaborative, risky, and deeply fulfilling journey that results in us better understanding ourselves – and each other.

So please, enjoy the stories that follow. Consider which of the recommendations we provide might be worth putting into action in your community. And take the time to share your own story, and read the stories of hundreds of other fellow citizens, at