Mom Solidarity: Women’s Walk For Peace

"I lost my baby in 2010."

“I lost my baby in 2010.”

If you Google homicides in Boston by year, a set of grim statistics is available:  the number of young men under 30 who are killed by gun or knife violence in Boston, especially in particular neighborhoods (Dorchester, Roxbury, South End).  Mostly, young men die in Boston; mostly they are men of color.  Mostly, the mainstream press never reports these homicides, and mostly, families who suffer these tragedies experience little attention or outrage beyond their neighborhoods, as  Cassandra Desroches  commented on a Facebook page in support of the Women’s Walk for Peace Boston and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.  Desroches said, “What gets me is that the media still focuses on the bombing. Don’t get me wrong- this was a historical epic tragedy! However… they are forgetting the neighborhoods of Boston who deal with ‘hood’ terrorism daily. I’m still waiting for this story to break!”

Yesterday, women (and men) all over Boston rose up and went walking early to highlight the 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace.  Amidst rain and overcast skies over 5000 of us gathered to transform pain and anger into power and action.  Moms wore t-shirts with the names of loved ones they had lost…

As speakers began loved ones gathered in tee-shirts memorializing lost loved ones.

Families gathered in tee-shirts memorializing lost loved ones.

Boston Mothers Care

Boston Mothers Care

Boston Mothers Care an amazing organizaton of women who meet weekly to support their women’s-focused mission in Haiti (bringing potable drinking water to a rural village in Haiti), came out with banners, backpacks full of information, and their kids; high school students memorialized lost loved ones–high school peers.

Jorgie, born July 1993, killed September 2012, age 19, memorialized by friends

Jorgie, born July 1993, killed September 2012, age 19, memorialized by friends

One mom, who had lost her “baby” in 2010, burst into tears as she told me about his unsolved murder as he sat in a car outside a convenience store.  Shattered lives and broken hearts were lifted up by an incredible Boston showing of solidarity and support for those who have suffered homicide and other forms of violence.  As we shouted, “What do we want?  Peace! When do we want it? Now!” individuals from the neighborhood leaned out their windows and doors waving and shouting “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Part of a national movement of mothers to end violence against their children, we can all support the movement by making a donation to the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute which provides education and support to survivors of homicide, or walk the event next year.  In the balkanized neighborhoods that unfortunately characterize Boston, efforts like this matter more than ever.  It was the right way to begin the day as a citizen of Boston and a mother. IMG_1591

I Am A Citizen of A Country That Does Not Yet Exist

The great Dr. Vincent Harding, whose words and moral presence has inspired me and my colleagues at IDEA for years, has never been more powerful here.  Speaking at the Children’s Defense Fund Annual Convention in Cincinnati, OH in July 2012, at a town hall on national and racial healing, Dr. Harding proclaims a vision for activism, and of world that is emmanent, that calls out to me at a nearly bodily level.  He asks us to believe into being that which does not yet exist.

As activists in education, when the obstacles to real reform and profound, sustained transformation sometimes seem impossibly great, Dr. Harding’s message increasingly informs me, at a deep, soul level.

We are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.  “A just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multi-racial country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders. That cares about what the earth needs.  I am you are a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.”

The necessity of keeping on with the work, and proclaiming what is at the moral center of the work–both in action and in end–feels more and more like the project I am behind.  “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.”  (Wallace Stevens).

How are we standing up together, and proclaiming the world that does not yet exist, in our work as educational activists?  Can we join together to do so?


ssoosay’s Simple iphone Lock Screen Mindfulness Reminders (on Flickr)

(A version of this post is currently running at Education Week, and is written by Kirsten Olson and Valerie Brown.)

The work of skillful, mindful leadership in education has never been more challenging.  Only this morning, a lively, Twitter-connected and forward-thinking superintendent wrote to one of us describing her sense that the pockets of innovation and exemplary teaching in her district,  “aren’t even scalable to our 726 square miles,”  although she has been leading this work for many years.  She is considered highly successful, yet she often feels overwhelmed and burned out.

A recent informal survey of school administrators conducted by Jerry Murphy, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and our colleague in the exploration of self-compassion), showed that among his sample of school leaders attending a professional program on the inner work of leadership,  89% reported feeling overwhelmed, 84% neglected to take care of themselves in the midst of stress, and 80% scolded themselves when they performed less than perfectly–conditions under which few of us are primed to be our best or perform optimally.

Finally, at the most recent Educon meeting, we talked with a group of educators about the political and personal work needed to transform the educational community.  Many described the need to find external community–a group of like-minded colleagues to find courage and support (many educators are finding these communities online)–but also of the need for an internal set of  resources, to provide ballast and calm in the high seas of their chaotic professional environments–to create “permissioning,” as our friend Chad Sansing describes it.

How do we develop both? The capacity to maintain community and conviction for the work one is engaged in–particularly challenging for educators at this moment–and also the internal poise and sense of calm purpose to guide us across the rocky shoals of teaching and leading in our sector?

As mindfulness practitioners with long histories in chaotic, demanding industries, we believe developing simple, daily practices around calming, meta-reflection, pausing, and renewing are central to the work we are trying to accomplish, and vital to tapping the creativity and sense of possibility required to transform our education sector.  As leadership coaches believe our clients are already creative, resourceful, and whole, yet we know in practice, access to creativity and innate wholeness is often illusive for many of our clients.  As Westerners too, we often try to “think” our way into a sense of calm, and underestimate the power of developing daily activities, rituals, and skills that help us focus, get grounded, and center.  We have become convinced that the development of  mindfulness practice is a central piece of courageous, sustainable leadership in education–and greatly undervalued.   And we know that developing mindfulness is not easy.


One of us (Valerie) first tried a mindfulness meditation class 18 years ago as a way to get relief from a relentless schedule as a lawyer-lobbyist.   In the meditation class the instruction was simple:  Let go of thoughts as they arise. See them like clouds floating in the sky.  “I wrestled with myself.  I tormented myself.  I tied myself up in mental knots.  This seemed so simple and yet, my mind was racing from thought to thought:  I’m sleepy. My back hurts. When is this going to be over?  On and on it went like that for two hours until the final bell rung and the meditation came to an end.  I thought to myself, What a disaster! Oh, well.  I’ll come back next week, and this time, I’ll get it right.  I have been coming back to Monday night meditation, now for almost two decades.  Over time, I have learned skillful means of extending mindfulness into my daily life.”


Mindfulness meditation, the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening inside and around us in the present moment, is innate to every person.  Mindfulness is a central element of Buddhism and is more than 2500 years old.  It was developed to enhance awareness and wisdom to help people live each day with greater ease.  Today, decades of clinical research supports the use of mindfulness practices, which have been widely adapted across disciplines.

Mindfulness goes deeper than simply generating feelings of relaxation and calm, or developing a toolbox of techniques. It is an embodied practice that creates an inner balance that allows for greater emotional stability, with clarity to act and respond with greater understanding.    Unlike apathy or indifference, mindfulness trains us to accept the moment, without judging it, without the constant running commentary, conceptual elaboration and emotional reactivity about our current condition or our current state of mind.   Awareness and acceptance are the important steps toward transformation.   Mindfulness is not about removing all thoughts (which is not possible anyway), or striving for a particular feeling of bliss.  It isn’t about mastery of the mind over body, or ‘being in a zone’, or getting rid of aspects of ourselves that we don’t like.  Instead, we train ourselves in observing and accepting without judgment sensations and emotions, even painful ones, which with practice, builds tolerance and resilience under stress.

Try this practice:  Every day, every few hours, stop and take three deep breaths through the nose, feeling the belly rise and fall.  Notice how you feel.  This builds awareness of the body and breath, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind, reducing stress.

Try this practice:  Next time you walk around the school building notice how you are walking.  Feel your shoes on the floor.  Feel your spine tall and strong, and your shoulders wide and relaxed. Allow yourself to become keenly aware of your surroundings.  This strengthens focus on the present, sharpening awareness and mental clarity.

Try this practice:  Next time you eat lunch, try just eating not reading, texting, or attending to anything else.  Notice the food.  Savor flavors. This enhances self-care and self-nurturance, and elements of self-compassion.

Try this practice:  Next conversation, practice listening.  Set aside the desire to fix, solve, correct or judge the other person.  Listen not just with your ears (to hear), but with your eyes (to see), your mind (to think), heart (to feel), and your attention (to focus).  What do you notice about yourself?  How does it feel to listen deeply?  Listening practice builds empathy and compassion, essential tools of emotionally intelligent school leaders, and promotes connectedness with others, a fundamental element of community.

As leadership coaches, we work with individuals on listening to their inner stories, learning to breathe through disequilibrium, to caretake and pause in the intense volatility and complexity of administrator’s and teacher’s jobs.  We find that by learning how to be more present, through pausing and centering, and by explicitly developing greater self-compassion, individuals are better able to deal with work that is uncertain, ambiguous and challenging.  With these practices our clients find that life offers refuge and even inspiration, and that refuge is always there for them, right inside of them.

Our mentor Parker Palmer, speaks poignantly about the need for coherence between our inner and outer worlds, between the “person we are inside,” and the external world of our work, of the desire for alignment between “soul and role.”  Mindfulness practices in education is a rapidly emerging area, with possibilities for depth of awareness, focus, clarity, concentration and understanding that can profoundly enhance teaching, learning, and leading.  School leaders who practice mindfulness serve as inspirational role models for emotional and social intelligence, uniting schools, teachers, boards, students, and parents.  Leaders with these skills bring a richness and depth to their roles.  Mindful school leaders mean more coherent and effective schools, teachers who are more focused and better supported, and students who have the skills and appetite to interact with the complex world outside the school door.  Mindfulness is for everyone.  We’re taking a deep breath right now.

Kirsten Olson, Ed.D. is Chief Listening Officer at Old Sow Coaching and Consulting, which specializes in transformational leadership services for educational organizations. She is the author of Wounded By School and founding board member of IDEA, the Institute for Democratic Education In America. Valerie Brown, J.D. is a former attorney and lobbyist, and is now president of Mindful Solutions, promoting transformation leadership services through awareness and renewal.  They are in private practice together offering leadership coaching and professional development solutions.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Sunday, October 10 on a beautiful, almost hot day in Boston, over 5000 students, parents,

My son Sam and me with DIY signs

children, educators, working people took to the streets of downtown Boston to join in support for Occupy Boston, a peaceful demonstration that says THE PEOPLE ARE TOO BIG TO FAIL.  Income inequality is killing us, corporations are not people, the middle class is dying.  We, the 99% have been much too quiet. We must take action.

I hit the streets with family, friends, students.  Using the human mike, this was the most well-organized, peaceful protest I’ve been a part of recently.  Students from UMass, Tufts, Bard, Harvard and Northeastern explained procedures as we got started.  “We have a constitutional right to be here.”

“We have a constitutional right to be here.”

“If you need medical attention this is what you do.”  “There are peacekeepers wearing green t-shirts in the crowd.”  “We expect this to be a peaceful demonstration.”  “If someone gets hurt, lock wrists and surround them.” “The police are our friends.”

Beginning slowly and picking up energy as we moved, amidst drums, a corporate 10K going on simultaneously, chantkeepers (“Ask me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like!”), we left the Boston Common and marched through the financial district, our numbers growing audibly to roaring crowds.  We passed few observers who did not seem with the message. (“We are

"Self-Employed. $12K for health insurance. No retirement. I am the 99%"

the 99% You are the 99%!”)  A man working at a parking garage yelled back, “Hell yes I’m the 99%!”

At one point some office workers–folks in their offices on Columbus Day–held up a sign from their second story window. It was of FDR, with a slogan about reinstating the Glass-Steagall act, to huge roars from the crowd.  It was that kind of group–wonky Boston, in part.

Great Protester Signs:  “Things are bad when English teachers use swear words. Shit is Fucked Up.”

“1% cannot stop a new consciousness.”

I Was Told There Would Be Cake

“I was told there would be cake.”

“Who put the Slitherins in charge?”

Who Put The Slitherins In Charge?

Even with 50 Occupy Boston protesters arrested late last night, this is a movement growing all over the country.  We, the 99% are rising up to say we will not be quiet as our government is overtaken by private interests and economic elites.

#OccupyEdu is another way to get in

#Occupyedu is another way to join this movement around education, if protesting outside your door isn’t possible.

Just get in.  Just protest.

Once you’ve stood up, you’ll never sit down.

Let’s put our signs together…

Seeing Ourselves Clearly

As a Positive Psychology News subscriber, I recently completed an exceptionally perceptive and painless-to-administer online survey of my personal strengths, based on several decades of positive psychology research about the characteristics associated with positive outcomes in the workplace, authentic happiness, and thriving.  There are many strengths assessments available, some of which have been taken by millions of people, and all are grounded in innovative research and ongoing, real-time practice in daily life.  The one I took cost $15, could be completed in about 20 minutes, offered me an immediate PDF and interactive narrative final report of my top strengths and optimal roles, along with an explanation of when I am at my most powerful.  In my case,

Summary from StandOut Assessment

I am a “connector” and “pioneer,” an assessment I found useful and perceptive as I think about my work as an educational activist and consultant. (Page 5 of my report says, “You are a multiplier, always trying to put two things together to make something bigger and better than it is now.”) 

In education, wouldn’t it be powerful if we had an online, research-based tool that would help us understand our own educational values and desires? In education we fight a lot, often not at all productively, about what are essentially value differences, while assuming, incorrectly, that we all believe the same things, that we want the same things for our kids, that the future parents and teachers wish for their children are all the same, and that we all essentially agree.  We don’t.

For instance, over at the COOP where I blog, the gathered group tends to be pretty classically Progressive, and believe that education is a spiritual and integrative process that is best served by holistic, experiential, individualized learning experiences–ones that are about strentheng capacity for personal meaning making. (See Column #3 of the slide below.)  At the COOP folks are also deeply concerned with creating a more civil society through education, and social justice issues.

Do we know where we fit? 

I meet lots of parents for whom these are not their central concerns. These parents don’t believe that experiential, project-oriented, learner-constructed educational experiences are “real” or serioius, and don’t think schools and classrooms constructed in these ways will help their kids get into college or be successful in the world after school.  Equally, I also meet parents and teachers who are interested in educational experiences for their children that specifically instruct kids in a particular moral, behavioral, or religious philosophy.

Yet based on the outrage and frustration of these many conflicting voices, it’s clear we don’t sufficiently understand our educational value differences, we don’t acknowledge them, and therefore, have a hard time working productively together on a larger vision of change.  Not everyone wants a progressive, experiential education for their child.  Some people really do believe that high-stakes testing prepares kids for the challenges they will face in their lives beyond high school.  Many parents do want uniformity, strong and decisive discipline in school, want their children to be taught that they are part of a group rather than emphasizing their individuality, and think that a fair amount of compliance is helpful in creating good and productive citizens. That old John Dewey quote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community wants for all of its children,” just isn’t right anymore.  There isn’t a best and wisest parent, the goals of education are too diverse, and the kinds of educational environments that are beginning to be available now are too varied for there to be one best and right way.  We have poor ways of talking about this.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had an online, easy to administer, inexpensive, verified-by- research, thoughtful and non-judgmental tool for getting at these differences?  If  as a parent, I could go online and understand that what I really want for my children is an educational environment like that offered at Jamie Steckhart’s Northwest Passage High School in Minnesota  (abundant choice, experiential learning), whereas my neighbor next door is much more interested in a school like SEI Charter Academy, in Portland OR, where children are rigorously disciplined, and offered a full-range of support services and extracurriculars, but must maintain a code of conduct for receipt of those services?

The issue is, of course, we don’t have the research that supports this kind of tool, and until quite recently we didn’t have the range of school choices to make these distinctions.  Most especially we don’t have the sophisticated ways of talking about our differences that would undergird such a tool.

But we desperately need it.

What would help us begin?

Tour of Our Lives

The tour begins.

Last week 37 educators from 10 states and 4 countries gathered at the headquarters of Project Reach and Fertile Grounds in Manhattan to begin the Institute for Democratic Education in America’s (IDEA’s) first ever Innovation School tour.

After receiving our Metrocards (this was an all subway all the time tour), and a quick chance to get to know each other, we were off to do what we came to do: see four innovative, breakthrough schools, each with different histories, instructional models and student populations. (Monday: NYC iSchool, The Green School; Tuesday: Urban Academy, Calhoun School).  We were especially interested in the culture and climate of each school–each one was considered “successful” and was popular with its students and parents.  But what made each one different?  What made their cultures coherent and powerful?  What lessons could we learn from seeing them to take back to our own schools and our own work?

After two days of intense, on-the-ground classroom visiting, stairwell climbing, principal-question-asking, student discussions, processing with each other on the subway and at every meal and late into the night, here were some of the things we learned, or decided we were going to think about more…

  • Schools that work well put love at the center. On this tour we were blessed to have a delegation of school leaders from Nuestra Escuela, in Puerto Rico, a school for students who have disengaged from education or have been rejected by conventional schools.  “This is a school founded on love,” says the school’s co-director, Justo  Mendez Aramburu.  Amid much talk about the accountability environments of New York City and the Department of Education, the schools that we saw that truly seemed coherent, were educating students to use their minds confidently and well, and were creating challenging and supportive environments for everyone in their community, had a message of love at their center.“We are like a family here,” said Ann Cook, legendary director of Urban Academy.  “Everyone knows everyone else,” said a student tour guide at the Calhoun School.  “We don’t have to force kids to talk to each other, said, Alisa Berger, Executive Director of the NYC iSchool“We value our time together in person so much everyone wants to be present.” In a harsh accountability world where prioritizing love and connection can seem like an extra we can’t afford, the truly breakthrough schools we saw understand that we learn from people we love and trust, and that real education doesn’t happen without these things.  We found ourselves thinking about how to realign policy at our schools to reflect this.

  • There is nothing like getting out of your own building to see other schools. In spite of our best intentions, many of us are profoundly isolated and trapped in our own all-consuming educational settings.  Our buildings, our classrooms, our staffs, gobble  up all the oxygen in the room and make it hard for us to be the cosmopolitan, far-thinking educators we want to be.  Being out on an innovation school tour, even for two days, can be transforming.  Some of our participants said, “We saw things we never thought of, or didn’t think were possible.”  “This re-engaged me to commit to doing the things I want to do in my school.” There is nothing so empowering as seeing how other educators, just like you, are actually doing some of the things you want to do, or try, and having an opportunity to ask them how they did it.  This alone can reshape one’s professional world.
  • Innovative school leaders have realistic, uncompromising attitudes about doing brave things. (See key learnings below.)
  • “This was the best professional development of my life.” In a world where so much of teacher professional development is drive-by and top-down, this was an experiential, somewhat unconstructed learning opportunity.  The visits were not over-scripted or over-determined, things happened unexpectedly, people were trusted to figure out what to do for themselves and how to make the group come together as powerful learners.  Although we didn’t plan it this way, holding on to some of our unscripted informality, and trusting the learners in the group to co-create the learning, was one of the best parts of the tour.  Trusting the learners to co-create the learning.  That was one of the biggest themes of our watching, wondering, thinking and reflecting during our two days.

  • Trying to do innovative work in schools requires that you get together with other people  who are also struggling and dreaming. Many of us came to the tour hesitant, maybe a little bit skeptical, uncertain if this would be worth our time.  Many of us are beaten down and made smaller by the conditions of our work and a pervasive cynicism about transforming the sector.  Simply spending two days with other educators who are all interested in learning new things together, who dream big together, was intensely inspiring and meaningful.   By going through this experience together, we were strengthened in our resolve and left with real ideas about how to create better schools.  You can’t do that on your own as effectively, and you need to get together with other likeminded folks who can help you learn new things.

  • Every discouraged educator needs to go out on an innovation tour to remind themselves what can be done in schools, how education can be transforming for children and adults–why they entered the work. See above.  Why did we get into this work?  Why do we keep doing it?  Seeing schools that really are successful in the conventional sense, and also innovative and not like everyone else, inspires us to do better.
  • We are very bad at carrying the lessons of innovation and best practice out into our larger professional world. In many of the breakthrough, innovative schools we visited during the two days we found ourselves wondering, why aren’t these lessons of best practice widely disseminated?  Why aren’t they copied in more schools and more educational settings?  As educators we are often isolated from each other and have underdeveloped means of learning from each other.  Innovation tours are one way to begin to do this.
  • Schools that are engaged in best practice want to get their messages out to the world, and want to engage in dialog about how they could be better. Some of us were concerned that the schools we were visiting would feel we were a burden, and couldn’t handle 37 of us invading their schools for half a day.  To the contrary, what we discovered was incredible enthusiasm for our visit, a desire to discuss how each school was struggling and trying to get better at, a desire for colleagueship and knowledge-sharing.  Even the schools that are at the top of their game are always trying to get better and learn what they can to improve their practice.  “We want you to be very critical of us,” said Kenny McLaughlin, Assistant Director of The Green School in Brooklyn.  We were heartened by the frankness of the dialog and how much school leaders saw us as partners.

  • There need to be many more opportunities like this for all educators. Is there a tour to be created in your area?  From whom would you like to learn?  Who could learn from  you?  How can we create more opportunities for educators to work together and learn more powerfully from each other?  If you want to participate in one of IDEA’s innovation tours, go here.  If you were on the tour and want to talk some more about it, comment below.  If you have some things we could learn from you about doing the tours, tell IDEA about it.  If you want your school to be involved in a tour, contact IDEA.

But get involved.  The message of love, and the message of action, was at the heart of our experience together.  You must feel connected to act, and to act you must be connected.   This may help you begin.


NYC iSchool: “Knowing when you know something is the key 21st century skill,” said Executive Director Alisa Berger about their innovative, technology-enriched experiential high school where all  students are engaged in 7-week-long projects connected to real events in NYC.

The Green School, Brooklyn: “Sustainable living on the earth is not a curriculum subject but about a whole way of living and learning, and that’s what we’re teaching,” said Principal Karali Pitzele.

Urban Academy: “The thing kids learn here is how to make an argument and how to understand multiple perspectives on a problem,” said director Ann Cook about their discussion-based curriculum for kids who have disengaged from other educational environments.

Calhoun School: Longtime Progressive school on the upper West Side of Manhattan stresses three critical approaches to learning:  start with the student, we learn best by doing, and the process of education is not linear.   Generations of students have lived and learned at Calhoun, many of whom come back to teach there, or send their own children to school there…

Other observations:

  • Innovative school leaders have courage. Legendary school leader Ann Cook, long time director of Urban Academy, noted that being an innovator is, “all about creative non-compliance.”  “I don’t see any police around here checking on how student’s time is spent,” she said, urging one educator who protested “this can’t be done in my school,” as they talked about Urban’s college-like schedules for students.  The leaders we met had a clear-sighted view of the world they’re actually in, “we do all the Regents exam preparation online so we don’t waste our time with that instructionally,” said Alisa Berger, director of the NYC iSchool.  These leaders make time for what they think is important.  At the iSchool, exam prep doesn’t rule their experiential, social technology enriched instruction.  “It’s not about the technology, it’s about rethinking how learning actually happens,” said Berger.  These leaders have an attitude about doing what they think is the right thing to do, and not letting fear of the tests, or anxiety about risk taking, rule their lives.  “Design time around what you want to teach, not the other way around,” said Ann Cook.
  • Students are treated as serious intellectuals. For these schools, this doesn’t mean giving them more low-level tests and pushing them to remember more, but engaging in serious, important tasks like electronically interviewing other teenagers from around the world about their attitudes towards 9/11 and creating an installation at Ground Zero, or creating a project in which students from around the world interview each other about being sixteen.   At Urban Academy, students must independently read books and discuss them with New York-based intellectuals, professors and artists to demonstrate intellectual competence.  At The Green School, students solved the problem of “floating trash” around the neighborhood as requested by the Sanitation Department.  Learning is real, and connected to real outcomes, and the attitude is that everyone is going to grow intellectually, including teachers and school staff, as they engage in serious, interesting problems.
  • Teachers are taught how to do the work better and better. At the best schools, like Urban Academy, there is a 7-step “method” for teaching inquiry-based instruction and everyone in the building understands it and uses it.  On the other hand, there is not a compliance-model about instructional design.  Teachers exercise great authority and control in terms of what they are going to teach and what materials and experiences to use.  “It’s  loosey goosey and also a tight ship,” says Ann Cook.

125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

Back in December, on a couple of blogs, I asked folks to contribute how they’ve made their schools or classrooms more democratic.

Within days the list went from 15 (what we went live with) to hundreds, with contributions from educators in England, Israel, Puerto Rico, Brazil and all over the United States.  And they’re still coming in.  A couple of folks asked for a comprehensive list, so here it is.  Crowdsourced and growing…

Check out the list…


What have you done, as a classroom teacher, a student, a parent, administrator, to make your school more equitable, less hierarchical, more welcoming to everyone, and more like a place where real thinking happens?

1.  Invite 5 students to a faculty meeting

2.  Eliminate staff and student bathrooms

3.  Ask students to facilitate important school wide meetings

4.  Start each day with a morning meeting and check in, and listen to each other. (How are you? How are you feeling today?)

5.  Ask students to develop rubrics for judging “excellent” work

6.  End courses/units with a culminating projects designed by students, about something that really matters to them

7.  Have students read each other’s papers and comment on them, directly to each other

8.  Get students to determine the homework policy (even in the early grades)

9.  Charge students with deciding what goes up on the walls at school

10.  Pass a “talking stick” during intense discussions so that everyone gets a chance to speak

11.  Eat lunch with kids (or teachers) you rarely talk to

12.  Ask students to attend parent/teacher conferences

13.  Ask students to evaluate themselves prior to parent/teacher conferences

14.  Ask students to run parent/teacher conferences

15.  Have everyone practice “yes/and” more than “no/but” (because success is available to everyone!)

16.  Use participatory budgeting to engage the whole school community in setting budgets and involve students in staff appointments

17.  Make sure any school inspectors or visitors talk to any students, not just those staff select or who are self-selecting (e.g. student council)

18.  Keep track of student involvement as well as attainment (Who is taking on what leadership roles? Who is engaged in programmes that allow them to be involved in decision-making?)

19.  Make sure your student council isn’t just a fundraising or school improvement club, but is a students’ union – – make it clear that its primary role is to represent the views of students.

20.  Get students to research what helps them to learn

21.  Get them to present their findings to staff

22.  Give students the funding, trust and time to set up and run their own extra-curricular clubs and activities

23.  Get students involved in planning lessons

24.  Get students involved in teaching lessons

25.  Get students involved in evaluating lessons

26.  Make sure your School Development Plan has a ‘student voice’ column, so that every issue has a ‘student voice’ from reducing truancy to improving attainment. ‘Student voice’ should not be a line that is separate from anything else

27.  If you don’t have a School Development Plan, look at all your other policies, add in a student voice element

28.  Train students and staff together.

29.  Have student mediators

30.  Have student mentors

31.  Have student play and sports leaders

32.  Don’t have a staff room – or allow students free access to it

33.  Uniforms: if you’re going to be democratic they need to be as free/restrictive for staff as they are for students

34.  Invite students to budget meetings, listen to their unique perspective on what is important

35.  Let students be in charge of organizing school assemblies and gatherings

36.  Invite students to help plan learning

37.  Ask students to define what powerful learning looks like, and commit to implementing findings (see Harris Federation ‘Commission for Learning’)

38. Make students co-designers of projects

39.  Train students to coach each other to become better learners

40.  Instigate a ‘right to roam’: if students would better learn from someone else in (or out) of schools, let them (with responsibilities to report back)

41.  Set up staff/student research programmes

42.  Start a democratic school meant to take on traditional public schools in your community

43.  Focus on democratic education, rather than school, and credential experts and community volunteers to serve as circuit teachers meeting with a variety of students at a variety of sites for authentic, project and service-based work in communities. Let the credentialed experiential instructors pitch courses for students to choose, as is done at Steve Miranda’s school.

44.  Give students and parents equal votes and/or shares in consensus decisions about budget, facilities, catering, curriculum, materials, and staffing

45.  Allow students to leave classes that suck

46.  Ask all adult community members and interested students to read Doing School, Wounded by School, and The New Global Student

47.  Provide leave time for all community members to visit undemocratic schools and to discuss how similar and different their democratic schools are to and from the undemocratic ones

48.  Accept for credit (whatever that means) all service work and self-directed learning evidenced outside school

49.  Allow students to define “credit” individually

50.  Abolish seat time requirements

51.  Secure and defend self-pacing rights for students, including graduation plans, portfolios, and requirements

52.  Allow specialization

53.  Allow students to use public and private transportation to attend the school of their choice

54.  Study the sustainability of a democratic model within the context of your school and division given the predispositions of the rest of the staff, faculty turnover, and community values. Don’t do democracy to a community unwilling to participate in it. Start slowly unless you are in the perfect place

55.  Leave schools that aren’t democratic

56.  Abolish grading and resist all norm-referencing products and practices, including state tests which, while seemingly criterion/standards-based, are actually validated and scored by norm-referencing student performance on each item each administration

57.  Allow communities to democratically elect their teachers and administrators, as well as to democratically authorize new schools

58.  Look past your school, which is likely unrepresentative of all of our kids

59.  Turn off the damn bells! Feels like we are teaching inside a Skinner box! Let’s encourage kids to respond to their inner voices, to human requests, not to bells. While we’re at it turn off the intercoms too. Too Orwellian.

60.  Take the kids outside the classroom. Nothing democratizes like a natural setting. No overheads pointed to the front. No teacher at the board. If it’s not possible to take ‘em outside, how about the hallway. Can you at least arrange the seats in a circle or somehow allow students to see each other’s eyes?

61.  Create choice in any way you can. Ask yourself honestly, how many legitimate options does a given student have in any one moment? For example: they can raise their hand and answer the question. They can ask to use the bathroom. They can sit quietly. Challenge yourself to increase the range of acceptable moves exponentially. No secret formula here; what is possible depends entirely on your specifics. Be creative.

62.  Allow for physical movement. This needn’t mean anarchy. Establish whatever boundaries you need to on this, but again challenge yourself to allow for stretching, standing, circulating. This can be done without losing time, focus or completion of tasks. Truly.

63.  Aspire towards a sense of spaciousness. Allow for silence and time for reflection

64.  Have a sense of humor! If you must use your authority to exact desired behaviors, acknowledge to yourself and the kids that this is what you are doing, and recognize that doing so does not match your ideal world view. Notice the absurd when it comes up – especially when it comes out of your own mouth, i.e. “no, this is not a good time to use the restroom. You’ll need to wait.”

65.  Invite classes and parents to contribute to the development of whole school policies (values and citizenship, assessment, homework etc.)

66.  Involve pupils and parents in the recruitment of headteachers / deputes.

67.  Everyone, pupils and staff (teaching, admin, catering, janitorial) do the same child protection training for insight to peer mentoring

68.  Pupils build the class requisition for supplies

69.  Pupils choose what they will learn and suggesting how they might best learn it

70.  Let students determine what their homework is and have them show it to others. This is like Google giving employees 20% of their time to do whatever they want

71.  Allow each student to determine what they put on the wall from their own work. By the way, the wall has expanded to include school Facebook pages and blogs

72.  Get rid of the staff dining room

73. Let students decide when school starts

74. Let students decide if anyone gets cut from any team

75. Let students choose the cast for the school plays and musicals after open auditions

76. Let students take tests when they think they are ready

77. Let students take tests as many times as they want. This would include only taking the portions that they haven’t passes yet

78.  Let students continue with a course that they haven’t passed yet until they can show that they know the material. Nobody should ever fail a course again

79. Put students in charge of the assemblies

80. Put students on hiring and interviewing committees

81. Give everyone in the building 20% flex time to work on their own projects

82. Have a course (or school) for which the decisions about what is learned is up to the students

83. Vote on important issues for the school and bide by those votes

84. Replace standardized textbooks with student co-created ones using wiki technology and incorporating multimedia

85.  Take some time to just sit still, play, hike, sing, and laugh with students and across age groups.

86. Have everyone (teachers, principals, coaches, parents, school board members, administrators, and community leaders) take the standardized tests and report their scores right alongside the students and openly discuss everyone’s results together

87.  Eat lunch with kids you rarely talk to and then listen to everything

88.  Host an open lunch in your classroom and invite students and staff once a month (can include discussion topics, short films, YouTube clips)

89.  Always give students choice in assessments

90.  Start a multi-grade elective class and structure it for many interactions between age groups (Creative Writing works)

91.  Bring Show & Tell to the high school level! (Think of a version on steroids – introducing philosophy, art, music, etc.)  Have students and faculty take turns

92.  If at all possible, do the major assignments you assign with your students.  Show your work when possible

93.  Do in-class assignments with students.  Show them that learning is a joint process

94.  Start a Anti-Racism group at your school (You’ll be amazed how many students will join).  Prepare thoughtful, difficult, uncomfortable, fulfilling, honest, discussions between students.  Get staff to join

95.  Include custodians, paraprofessionals, office workers, lunch workers in everything:  faculty parties and luncheons, community events, staff/faculty meetings, school assemblies

96. Bottom-up – Teachers/Staff run faculty meetings, department meetings, etc. and help shape policies

97. Continuous dialogue with students about learning activities, deadlines, grading, projects, teaching effectiveness, how policy affects them in the classroom, etc. (lift the curtain)

98. Have small group multi-age group discussions about the challenges faced at each school

99.  All school clean-up, like what is done in Japan. Not as a punishment, but to foster community involvement

100. Invite parents and community members into the school to participate in discussions, work, and activities

101.  Tell your students that their final exam will be to create their own way of demonstrating their knowledge of the subject

102.  Spend the time you might use telling your students to “think critically” by asking provocative questions that cause them to think critically. If they are not responding critically, you’re probably not asking the right questions

103.  Don’t get discouraged. For those of you looking to try on something new and make your corner of the world a little more democratic, don’t get discouraged by the occasional squabbling over what is or isn’t “democratic education” or a “democratic school.” We’re all going to do things a little differently, and what’s most important is that we leverage our power as educators to bend our institutions a little farther in the direction of social justice

103. Have courses in which teachers and students learn together and peer review each other’s progress. Can be done with open courseware, teachers teaching classes with teachers and students as pupils, or simply the teacher offering revealing their own advancement of learning in a course

104. Have courses that allow students and teachers to involve themselves in their communities (organizing, speaking, aiding in community projects). Being an engaged citizen is a valuable component of democracy. Also, this creates a diversion from the norm of “community service” as a chore or punishment

105.  “Free dress” for everyone!

106.  Co-teaching: Teachers and students cooperate to (as often as they see fit) mix grade levels covering the same topics, or even drop in on other subjects to have conversation about parallels and connections. This helps relieve age segregation and subject compartmentalization, which in larger society is not as extreme as it is in school

107. Encourage students and teachers to use free media such as pod-casting, to examine school issues and promote ideas

108.  I also love the promotion of play time! I always feel sad when looking at the progression of people going through school, playing less and less in favor or more “age-appropriate” “maturity.” I’ve seen for sure that 12 to even 19 year olds (junior high, high school, young adults) like jungle gyms, trampolines, and other places to let out playful energy!

109.  Ensure all K-12 students have an understanding of Civics and what democratic values represent

110. Engage all students to contribute ideas of what would make their school more democratic – where more real thinking can happen

111.  Get students out of the classroom to interact with the real world to make those learning connections

112. Realize that students need real exercise every day in order to learn

113.  Switch the conversation from grades to metacognition – how do YOU learn best?

114.  LISTEN to kids–give them a chance in every lesson to share how they think/feel/question.

115.  Let kids sit where they want to, beside whom they want to. I tell them to make wise choices or we’ll have to re-negotiate the choice. (Again, they would give input and have decision-making ability to choose differently or decide to change the behavior that’s causing us to have this conversation.)

116.  Shake the seating up regularly, encouraging the kids to sit by someone they’ve never sat by before to get to know more people. (Again, they get to choose.)

117.  Let kids go when they need to go. Don’t make them ask to go to the bathroom.

118.  Teach kids how to have a conversation without raising hands–turn-taking with respect and considerate behavior is a crucial social skill.

119.  Help push toward: curriculum compacting, enrichment clusters, and total talent portfolios (as written up here

120.  Establish a class agreement for optimal learning, rather than teacher setting rules.

121.  Have students lead conferences where they share their learning with their parents

122.  Create a culture where thinking is modeled and valued.

123.  Step back and encourage students to take control of their own learning.

124.  Allow choice for assessment tasks, so that learning can be demonstrated in a variety of ways

125.  Analyze a “decision” a class has collectively made that has not worked out well, discuss the decision-making process, and what might be done to achieve a better result. What didn’t work? What can we learn from this? What should we be thinking about for next time?

Want to add  yours? We’re waiting?….

What Is Democratic Education?

In what do we believe?

We over at IDEA have struggled mightily with “our” unique definition of democratic education.  Wiki defines it.  Amy Gutmann defines it.  How do we–if we’ve got it in our title–describe it?

In other words, in what do we believe?

As a founding board member of an organization that tries to promote this concept, here’s mine.

“Democratic education is learning rooted in meaningful challenge to the individual learner, while also responsive and relevant to the larger community.  It celebrates the adventure of learning, while cultivating personal and social responsibility.  It helps individuals and communities find their voices.”

Going further, here are some notes I made at our first IDEA Board Retreat.

1.  Democratic education requires meaningful challenge to learners, and the larger community.  (I value challenge–a sense of rigor created by real curiosity and real world circumstances.)

2.  Democratic education aims for authoritative, not authoritarian, relationships between students and adults.

3.  Democratic education emphasizes learning as a process of human development.  Learning happens through development, development occurs through learning.

4.  Democratic education grounds the process of education in respectful, responsive relationships between individuals in schools.

5.  Democratic education sees greater social justice as a natural outcome of an approach in which individuals of many statuses and backgrounds are valued equally, and treated equally well.

6.  Democratic education seeks to highlight a broader range of voices in educational settings than we currently experience.

7.  Democratic education sees human beings as naturally primed to learn.

What have I left out? In what do you believe?

Learn To Change/Changing To Learn

Next week I’m speaking at a large teacher’s conference in Illinois.  I was asked to write a little piece for local papers about the talk.

Let me know what you think?


For the past ten years I’ve been in schools, classrooms, tutoring centers, special education rooms, youth detention centers, barbeques, choir practices, and senior centers listening to people talk about learning–their experiences of learning, and their memories of critical learning experiences.

I love learning, and I love to hear people talk about it, so this has been an enormously pleasurable “research”–an adventure in which I’ve been transformed and shaped by almost everyone I’ve had conversations with.  As a researcher and writer, these are the conversations that lead to my latest book, Wounded By School.

Through these conversations, and my work as a teacher and professional developer, I am wowed by how powerful teachers and administrators are in the lives of their students, and how a chance comment by a teacher like, “When you apply to college,” can change a kid’s life.   But I am also acutely aware of how an offhand negative remark like, “Some kids never learn math,” or “You’ll be flipping burgers all your life,” can also confirm a student in a path of hard-bitten academic failure.  That’s what I talk about when I go out and consult in schools: how powerful our work as teachers is, how important and vital that work is, and how much it needs to be transformed and reconfigured as we face a brand new time in learning.  As adults in school, we need to learn to change, and to change to learn.

As most of us know, we are in a time of crisis in education, of intense and painful transition.  Our “old school” ways of teaching don’t reach our students as they might have before, and our old ways of educating, which were designed in the early 20th century and were about preparing people for a world of work in factories and one-career lives, don’t exist anymore.  Our educational system was built for a time when assembly line work, and relatively low-level cognitive skill jobs were much more the norm.  Our educational institutions were designed to “socialize” large groups of immigrants (like you and me), and teach them mainstream, white, middle class values.

But the students who appear in our classrooms everyday aren’t the same as they were twenty years ago.  They aren’t going to have lives like our grandparents, or their jobs.  Students, even kindergartners, are people who have lived connected to the Internet, and in information abundance, all their lives.  They’ve changed, and the lives they are going to have have changed–but our systems of education still, mostly, haven’t.

Of course all this is transition is happening at a time when there has never been so much pressure on schools and districts to perform in particular ways, to get kids to score well on standardized tests within state-mandated curriculums.  Education has never been scrutinized so intensively.   Some teachers say to me they feel like they live in a policy world that seems to almost actively mitigate against doing what they think is best for kids, a short term, results-oriented mindset about teaching that is contrary to everything we know about how children learn, and how to do our work effectively as teachers.

So while we know our work matters more than ever, it’s also become more difficult and complicated, and our ways of doing our work more contested and less sure.  What are we going to do about it?  What are some things we know that work?  (You have to come to my talk to hear more about that…)

A few things we know for certain are that you have to know your students to educate them well.  In the words of Gary Howard, a wonderful writer and educator, you can’t teach what you don’t know.  If we look at our own lives, very few great teaching and learning experience have occurred in the absence of relationship between teacher and student.  As teachers we need to make sure that that’s at the center of our work, no matter what grade we teach or kind of school we’re in.

But its not just relationships between teachers and students that matter, but whole schools having positive, caring climates in which EVERY child is expected to do well and achieve something marvelous for him or herself.  Those old days of letting some kids fail because “they don’t care” or “they’re not going to amount to anything,” are over.  I’ve never met a kid who deep down really didn’t care at all about pleasing others, and doing well for him or herself.  And we can’t afford to let a single kid down with low expectations, or giving up on “some kids” because it is too hard.

The reality I face in my work is that many of our schools aren’t designed to help all kids be successful.  We still let a lot of kids drift, or flounder, or crash, and say there’s nothing we can do about it.  In all the really successful schools I work in, everyone feels responsible for all the kids in the building, from the superintendent and principal to the physical education teachers to the bus drivers.  It’s everyone’s job to help kids succeed.

Finally, we have to give kids work that matters.  So much of what we ask kids to do in school is boring, low-level, meaningless, task-oriented, assembly line kind of work.  Teachers are bored assigning it, and they don’t want to read it or grade it.  How can we ask a student to be engaged in something we don’t find engaging or important ourselves?  It doesn’t make sense.

So I encourage teachers to take charge of their work environments, and not wait around for someone else to change things.  I ask teachers not to complain about policy or the conditions of the job, but to begin to design interventions that will help them be more successful at their work.  All around the country I see teachers forming personal learning networks and collaborative work groups and book groups with each other, where people can learn together, and get active together, to make their work in school better.  And then they get to it.  Because there is no time to waste.

Fundamentally, we have to change the way we do business in school, because it matters so much.  We have to move beyond shaming and blaming each other, and kids, for what isn’t working in education, and discover (or showcase what you’re already doing right) to improve our work.

Because the world, and our kids depend on it.  Let’s get started.

Our future depends on it.


Kirsten Olson, Ed.D., is a writer, speaker, and a national-level consultant to school districts and school leadership teams.  She helps schools, teachers, and students create more engaging educational environments for all learners. Her latest book, Wounded By School, was one of the top-selling books at Teachers College Press last year.  She holds a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

A Young Teacher Reflects

One of my former student at Wheaton College recently sent an email updating me on her life since graduation. With an abundance of options, Laura Peters, my student, decided after long reflection to join City Year and teach middle school in San Jose California.  Here’s some of her email to me:

“It has been an interesting three months already!  I am on a team of

twelve Corps Members serving Lee Mathson Middle School on the east

side of San Jose.  My team is the only team serving at a middle

school, the other four teams serve at elementary schools.  I tutor 8th graders at 2nd and 3rd grade

reading levels who never learned how to read correctly when they moved

from Mexico; students who at age 13 think it’s safer to join a gang

than excel at school.  My iPhone was stolen from my unlocked cubby

during 7th/8th grade lunch, and buying a new one on my Corps Member

salary certainly wasn’t a fun experience. But the work is so necessary, especially at the middle

school level, and I wake up every morning tired but ready to work.

Already I know that my classroom experience is shaping my views on public education, and I can’t wait to figure out my next move.

One of the most upsetting parts of watching “Waiting for Superman” was

realizing that the 5 kids profiled in the film had such a hard time

succeeding, and the students I am working with sometimes have less

than those 5 students.  The kids in the movie had parents who were engaged,

informed about their options, and could speak the language in which

their childern were learning.”

And yet, here is Laura’s inspiring message about dedicating her City Year bomber jacket, from a recent blog post

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation… It is from numberless diverse acts of courage… [and]… belief that this human history is shaped.  Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

- Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, University of Cape Town, South Africa

While most City Year sites wear the red jacket, the sites in LA and San Jose wear yellow because in this region of the country, red is a charged color.


On Friday, October 1, 2010, the entire City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley site will come together for our Bomber Dedication Ceremony.  It is a City Year tradition in which each Corps Member dedicates his/her bomber jacket to a person, idea, or cause that inspires them to serve.

When I found out about this event, I was bewildered.  I was completely at a loss for words or inspiration on whom or what to dedicate my jacket.  I was told that in the past, many Corps Members have dedicated their jackets to relatives, mentors, specific students, even ideas as large as the fight for social justice or the imbalanced education system.

For me, finding a specific person to dedicate something as powerful as a representation of my City Year service year is difficult.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family and friends.

High school English teachers, dance teachers and college professors inspired me to follow my dreams, no matter how lofty they were.  Students from all over the country – a small New Hampshire dance studio, a charter school for at-risk students in Massachusetts, and every single student I serve at Lee Mathson Middle School in San Jose – have fueled my passion for social justice.

I came across the founding story, Ripples, in my Idealist Handbook and my bomber dedication began to form.  Each corps member is allotted up to two minutes to speak, and all of the sudden this seemed impossibly short.

The past few weeks at my school have been tough.  I have officially begun to feel the strain of this year of service.  At the same time, I am starting to notice what I like to call “small miracles” happening on a daily basis.

One of my “tough guy” tutoring students ran up to me before school started to make sure that I would be tutoring him today, and a student with exceptionally difficult behavior issues had two good days in a row.  What I have realized this week is that no matter how insignificant or isolated these “ripples” may seem, they are the reason I’m here.

I’ve decided to dedicate my bomber jacket to all of the “ripples” that got me to where I am today: my family, friends, mentors, teachers, professors, school districts and college.  I am also dedicating my jacket to every “ripple” I hope to cultivate and inspire.  To the idealistic leaders of the past, present, and future, I dedicate my jacket and year of service to each and every “ripple” you create.

Laura Peters, Corps Member CYSJ

What I remember most about Laura was how passionately engaged she was as a learner, how self-questioning she was, and her insistence on a relationship between her instructors and herself.  Anonymity was NOT an option with Laura.

And probably not now, for her, with her own students.

Does anyone have advice for Laura?  Recollections of their first teaching experiences and this kind of work?