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.


One thought on “Tour of Our Lives

  1. In my effort to learn more about 21st century education, I had begun to equate the word serendipity with you Kirsten. It’s like I had been traversing down a series of rabbit holes and all of a sudden I bump into you (and your work). I have now come to the conclusion that I was wrong.

    I keep bumping into to you because you are working hard and putting yourself out there. I originally came upon this post at the IDEA site.

    A quick take: There are a ton of islands inhabited by people like yourself, who are working hard to change antiquated practices and methodologies. IDEA is trying to network those islands. Yes?

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