Take a Beauty Bath

"To look at anything, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long…" (John Moffitt

“To look at anything, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long…” (John Moffitt)

This practice, of taking in the beauty around us, is something I try to do daily; I just wrote these instructions for our forthcoming book, The Mindful School Leader (Corwin 2014).

I find this practice extraordinarily satisfying. Do you have one like it?

The Beauty Bath

We recommend this five-minute, sensually-engaging practice to reset one’s mood, to appreciate and savor the goodness that is all around us, and to create a transformative pause. We, the authors of this book, use this practice every day and find the act of gazing at something intently and with concentration, taking in its details and appreciating its contours, colors, contrasts, and scents, a transformative act. We hope you will give it a try and report back on its results. As many poets have noted, to really see a thing, you must look at it long…

· When you are feeling the need to a shift or a reset, pause what you are doing and go outside. If you need to put on your coat and shoes, and the weather is terrible, all the better. There is beauty everywhere. If you cannot go outside and are cut off from the natural world at the moment, you can still find something of beauty around you.

· Walk around and notice something your eye alights on, something you have perhaps not looked at closely before. This could be a very ordinary thing: a crack in the sidewalk where a few blades of grass poke through, the petals of a petunia blossom in a window box on a busy city street, the vine that curves around an abandoned fencepost. You might ask yourself, gently, why has my eye alighted here? You do not need to answer this question.

· Now take some deep breaths, which you’ve been practicing since you began reading this book, with a deep gentle inhale and a powerful emptying exhale. You are preparing to let the thing you are observing really come into your eye and your inner eye, a place that sees and appreciates things with a quiet contemplative alternative vision.

· Simply gaze, with appreciative, curious eyes at the thing your eye has alighted on. What is extraordinary about what you see here? How is it a miracle that that leaf has sawcut edges like that? What does the deep pink of that lily blossom evoke in you? What is the effect of simply observing this beautiful and perhaps rather thing?

· Allow yourself to take in all the details, without a plan and without too much thinking. Simply be in the experience of observing. Do this for at least a minute. Let the details of your observation sit inside you, in the clear space you have opened with your breath.

· After a minute or more, thank the object or formation you have been observing, and exhale one last time. (You can say “thank you” silently or out loud.) Remind yourself to be grateful for your capacity to see anything (for vision!), for this sweet object you have just observed, and for the miracles of our planet that lie all around us.

· Back to work! Notice how you feel when you return to what you were doing previously. Allow yourself to imagine that this act of visioning can be refreshing and resetting, and then see how this is.

· Make this a daily habit! Enjoy.

We believe that a daily habit of the Beauty Bath will dramatically increase your capacity for observation, and also broaden and build your sense of appreciation and connection to the world around you. And we think that will be helpful as a leader.

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.