50th and Lowell – Thoughts on Relationships in Education


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Here I am. On a Saturday. With students as they prepare to compete in the World Affairs Challenge. And I’m thinking about professional relationships.


That space between being myself and making my peers and colleagues feel better.

It took me a long time to find my voice – who I really am. Not who others wanted me to be. Not who others saw me as. Not the personalities I cultivated while in high school and college to cope with my insecurities and fundamental lack of self. While I discovered my self, I began to discover my voice as an educator as well. I am more comfortable in who I am and what I believe, but I still struggle. Mostly, I often wonder how I am supposed to act in my professional spaces.

Often acting on who I am and what I believe creates clashes with others.

For the past several years, this truth has become quite painfully clear.

I really like myself (seriously) – who I am, what I believe, my strengths, passions and even my weaknesses. And that only exacerbates current conflicts with several key relationships.

I understand that positive relationships are the single most important element in productive educational spaces. But I also know that being true to myself is the most important element for my personal happiness and successes.

When do I temper the real me when it might create conflict with a colleague? Where is that line?






A 4-H High School?





As colleagues and I planned and opened The Mosaic Collective, several renowned educational leaders advised.

Yong Zhao helped us dream big. Instead of tweaking the current model, he prompted us to redesign, reimagine what public school could look like. Tim Kubik and Kristy Lathrop shared the power of real PBL – not “doing” projects but using projects as the learning. Karl Fisch, our fellow public school colleague, shared his vision of public schools evolving in order to truly serve our students in the modern world (a belief he keeps fighting at his comprehensive, neighborhood public high school). Michelle Baldwin (and Anastasis Academy) reminded us that each student has a distinct identity and they must be at the center of any school design – “Students with names.”

Two gentlemen, each with their distinct views and personalities, may have left the most enduring impacts, and continue to work with students and staff as we evolve as a program. Will Richardson, reminds us that learning is everywhere. That standards create obstacles to the more important application and amplification of learning. And Gary Stager reminds us that the best learning happens by doing (and that assessment must change dramatically).

We value these voices, and connect regularly (well…semi-regularly) with each.

Recently, a new voice impacted my thinking. A student – a non-Mosaic public high school student. An athlete. A simple question while she waited for a ride home from tryouts. An inane conversational starter led to some serious reflection and a revelation.

School should look like 4H.

While growing up in Sedalia, a rural community in Douglas County, CO with “more livestock than people”, Julie participated in 4H. It led her to participate in several shooting competitions, including air pistol and shotgun categories, but it also allowed her to explore various interests including rocketry, welding, agriculture, and mechanics to name a few. Her only regret? Time. Too many evenings and weekends dedicated to 4H forced her to miss other childhood experiences.


ME: Julie, wouldn’t it be cool if school looked more like 4H?

JULIE: You mean learn by actually doing?

ME (To Myself): Gary Stager – have you heard of 4H? (To JULIE): Yeah. Choose something to learn and do it. Fly rockets. Weld something.

JULIE: Yes! Do something until you realize you don’t love it. Or “master” it. Then choose something else.

ME: Yeah.

JULIE: That would be awesome!

ME (To MYSELF): School should look more like 4H.


In years past, I have neglected to see the value of 4H in terms of a “formal” education. Failed to see the connection. But lately, seeing students struggle to use interests to drive their academic pursuits leaves me…befuddled and sometimes distressed. The conversation with Julie never devolved into concerns or questions about testing, grades or credit toward graduation, college and scholarship applications (except to note that as a sophomore, she has amassed a tidy sum in scholarship money due to her 4H competitions).

Instead we talked about what she learned while studying rocketry and welding. How much she enjoyed learning with the help of expert mentors. An I noticed her smile – her joy – while telling her stories. Until…she acknowledged the time spent outside of school learning all of this. The choices and sacrifices she made on behalf of her 4H participation.

I can’t think of one legitimate reason school couldn’t or shouldn’t look more like 4H. Can you?




Inventing Their Education


This post first appeared on the cvmosaic.org blog

“Invent Your Education.” The slogan for The Mosaic Collective. Too often we forget it or forget the purpose behind it.

We have students participating in several Learning Experiences – many designed by staff, many individual initiatives designed with staff, and a few designed by our partners in education. And a few students simply invent their own.

Several days ago, Zane, Tate and Hayden shared a YouTube video with Amanda (@kerrart) and me showing an artist creating beautiful pieces of art with spray paint. Their energy level high, they found our limited supply of spray paint and immediately began experimenting and emulating this artist. They eagerly shared, helped, created, revised, started over.

Yesterday, Tate and Hayden completed these.




Beautiful. Personal. Art. And how did they accomplish this? Did Amanda suggest it? Did she teach techniques? Did she assign or co-create a project with a clear rubric? Did she tie their work to specific credit toward graduation?

Nope. She provided some materials, space, time, and then got out of their way. Huh. Who knew?

Inventing Their Education. How are you, your students, your children identifying and pursuing an interest? What are you doing? What are you sharing?

Supplication – Leave ‘Em Wanting More

Digital Capture










The way you strike me now
It’s sparking my imagination
You got to like me now
You’re causing me such excitation
Don’t you like it now

Supplication Songwriters John Barlow and Bob Weir


I spent the last three afternoons watching students present designs and plans for a “Unity Garden”. The teams were contracted by the SSN Program at our school, and these were their first presentations to a client beyond our classroom walls.

I was struck by two main observations during the presentations and my reflections afterward.

Of the eight final presentations, both Ms. Stephanie Hill, the SSN Lead teacher, and I came to similar conclusions about why some were so much better than others. While all teams need to learn what makes a good presentation (a later post), the best presentations were process oriented not product oriented.

Ms. Hill asked each team to meet and collaborate with her students in order to get their input as to what they want and to provide feedback as they worked. Three teams met quite often, interacting with both Ms. Hill and her students. They brought designs to be critiqued and plans to be reviewed. They processed the information, but even more importantly, they created relationships. Through those relationships they were motivated to provide not only the best presentation, but the best product as well.

Those teams who focused on the design only – their ideas for a space meant for others – proved unsuccessful in both final product and in the quality of presentations.

The goal? Let the process drive the product. Leave them wanting more. Cause some excitement in the idea or plan. Make them need you to finish what you started. Leave them begging for more.



The Wheel – Don’t Let ’em Go








The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will

Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

Round, round robin run round
Got to get back to where you belong
Little bit harder, just a little bit more
A little bit further than you gone before

The Wheel Songwriters Jimmy Tomes and Richard Stevens


Today I had a brief but important and stirring discussion with my principal, Dr. Jim Calhoun.

Several students are struggling to be academically successful, and more than a handful have chosen to retreat to a more structured learning environment. Great. Good for them.

But what about those struggling but wanting to stay in our environment even if openly acknowledging (even celebrating) their lack of academic progress?

In a traditional environment they would earn failing grades. Here, they spin their wheels and earn no credits toward graduation.

In a traditional environment, they would be asked to try harder. Do more homework. Even try some extra credit. Here, we don’t have a set plan in place nor carrots to force kids to succeed.

In a traditional environment, they might just begin not attending class. Here, they come, socialize, play.

After meeting with Jim and our RtI committee, we decided these students MUST stay. We must appreciate the social/emotional needs and acknowledge that while these students may not be demonstrating academic progress that can be tied to graduation, they are exhibiting positive behaviors – even if that is simply coming to the space.

Our goal is to help them grow, heal, communicate, reflect, and begin to identify how they are successful and can use the space and our mentoring to reach new goals. Starting with co-creating expectations and helping them identify their own plan.

I need to work a little bit harder. We need to go further than we’ve gone before. It’s us, not them.

How refreshing.


Uncle John’s Band – Welcome to Easy Street

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,
‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.

Ain’t no time for hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

Uncle John’s Band – Songwriters Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter

easy street

Last night I was lamenting my professional trials and tribulations with my brother, an executive with a multi-national construction company. The dude logs some serious hours. He basically understands and appreciates my current endeavor and provided a new perspective.

“Well, sounds like a typical start-up. Huge highs, followed by tremendous and lengthy lows. Paying your dues in order to create a sustainable situation.”

Huh? The Mosaic Collective similar to a small business start-up with dreams of long-term riches? Reminded me of the first two years of Castle View High School. We were a start-up too – a reform minded public school bent on changing the educational paradigm. We were the DCSD outcasts. And life was not “Easy Street” then either. But we endured, we succeeded, we grew. Maybe too fast to continue reforming.

Maybe that’s the point. When it becomes easier, we quit striving for better because we’ve become “good enough.” We accept our limits and appreciate what we’ve accomplished. Complacency. We become institutionalized.

Staff in The Mosaic Collective chose to continue the reform that attracted us to CVHS – to provide choice based on student interest. To individualize curriculum. To be more than a glacial public school that is slow to change. But we must remember, we are not the only (or best) option for ALL students.

As parents and students decide to transfer out of The Collective, our pride must not interfere with our intentions. I hope those that transfer find the best environment that works for their education. That CVHS provides for them, and while they may have struggled in our environment, they find glorious success elsewhere.

In other words, I hope it is us, not them. Because there is no time to hate. We have more important items on our agenda, and the clock is ticking.


Truckin’ – The Long Strange Trip that is Mosaic

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been

Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home
Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones
And get back truckin’ on

“Truckin'” Songwriter BELTRAMI, MARCO E.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thanksgiving Break. I thought, read, wrote, met, planned, and recharged my professional batteries – I “patched my bones.” Often time and space provides a “clearer” perspective on my professional life.

Then…….Monday happened.


One aspect of my time in Mosaic is clear. Students are not forced into compliance. Because of that simple change in expectations, the space has become a more raw and real environment, where students are compelled to be truer to their nature, their personalities. That is especially clear when students openly and admittedly choose to do nothing for extended periods of their day.

In a space that pushes students to explore their interests and find new avenues to demonstrate learning, often they simply refuse. After 22 years of teaching in more “traditional” schools where compliance and deficit education are the norm, I’m continually struggling with the fine line of students exploring their worlds (often through open defiance) and my need to enforce the Mosaic policy of “Work and Don’t Be a Jerk” (clearly stolen from Dr. Gary Stager). Today was one of those days.

It’s still worth the struggle to fight my need to define our success using traditional metrics. But I’m surprised at how long this trip feels after only 15 weeks.

Let it Grow – Creating a Farmer’s Market for Real Student Work


AgriEducation – Using Inquiry to Create a Farmer’s Market of Student Learning

“The plowman is broad as the back of the land he is sowing
As he dances the circular track of the plow ever knowing
That the work of his day measures more than the planting and growing
Let it grow, let it grow, greatly yield”
“Let it Grow” – The Grateful Dead
John Perry Barlow and Bob Weir – Songwriters

We want our students to contribute to their communities by sharing their ideas, goals, interests and solutions through public demonstrations of learning to authentic audiences. To do that, students need to explore and select appropriate content that is important to them, not us, and it should reflect their best ideas and work after careful exploration. Ryan McClintock shared with me his vision of SEEDS – simple terms that might inspire students to explore their worlds without mandating specific academic content. It inspired my AgriEducation Vision.

Selecting the Seed

Students begin by exploring different SEEDS in an attempt to find the exact variety that drives an interest. We accomplish this through a process of student-directed inquiry led by academic advisors. These advisors are not selected by academic content; instead, advisors are randomly assigned to lead the session. The hope is that students themselves will ask questions that explode that SEED into its many varieties. For example: IDENTITY

  • Science:
    What role does DNA play in who we are?
    How did we evolve into the humans we are today?
    How are genes different than DNA?
    Does GMO change the identity of a plant?
    How do individual species play important roles in an ecosystem?
  • Social Studies:
    How does a culture impact our identities?
    What is the difference between Nurture and Nature in developing identity?
    How do external labels and stereotypes impact identity?
    Does our geographical location impact who we become?
  • English Language Arts:
    Do books/stories impact how individuals develop identity?
    How does fiction reflect social acceptance of those who are “different”?
    Can fiction create change in people?
  • Art:
    How do self-portraits illustrate an artist’s identity?
    How can artists show identity in their art?
    How have artistic movements represented or impacted identity?
  • Math:
    Why are shapes important?
    (I know they are there, but I don’t know what they mean – trigonometric, logarithmic, exponential identities…)

These are all simply varieties of the same SEED. Let them choose and explore. In a dream world, let them participate in the inquiry process for several SEEDS before choosing an appropriate SEED for themselves.

Planting the Appropriate Seed

Students plant the SEED and care for the SEED and soil until it germinates into a seedling. Students begin by writing an Essential Question based on the inquiry session. They share their question to the group in order to illicit additional questions from their peers. John Buch and Shaun Martin stress the importance of being questioned in order to create a better question. (A future post on questioning?)

  • “How does culture impact our identity?”
    What is culture?
    Who determines the identity – the person or the culture?
    What if the identity is negative by cultural standards?
    Do all culture act the same regarding individuals?
    Which culture will you examine?
    Will you look at multiple cultures? Multiple identities in that culture?

After these sessions, students will work with their advisor to create a specific and “perfected” Essential Question to plant and nurture. The student will work directly with the advisor to plan and carry out their work – individualized project management. Teachers sounding boards to help students find the content mentors in the building to assist them. They will also co-create a plan for sharing their knowledge with their peers in order to contribute to the learning environment. Lastly, students will predict and share how one might harvest this knowledge in order to contribute to their communities beyond the school – how they might use this knowledge to solve a real problem and share with an authentic audience.

This is learning.

Sharing the Germination

After a short but intense period of time learning, students will share their seedlings with others who planted a variety of the same SEED. Instead of content experts showing students the interconnectedness of knowledge, students will share with each other. This is a time to practice formal communication and providing feedback and reflecting on their own learning. (Formally Informal if you will).

They contribute to the knowledge base of their academic community and share how that knowledge might help their communities – offering new ideas to their peers and finding a seedling they might like to nurture to full Harvest. Once students share their knowledge, they do not own it. It becomes collective knowledge where anyone is free to apply it.

At this point, students begin by selecting a new SEED to plant while they may also decide to Harvest another. A slow progression to growing multiple crops in the same bed, all in different stages of development.

Nurturing the Harvest

In order to survive and benefit others, seedlings must be nurtured and harvested. Students can choose the knowledge that inspires them, and apply that knowledge to solve a real problem. A seedling is a core idea – after studying, sharing, listening and providing feedback, students may choose to graft seedlings together in order to better their community.

After learning about DNA and Genetics, the power of labels and stereotypes, and how literature can change how identities can be accepted, a student may decide to write a children’s story about a group being labeled negatively in their community in an attempt to educate young children.

While student learning happens during the germination of ideas, here students can create lasting impact by applying elemental knowledge to accomplish real work. See Will Richardson’s thoughts on that. They may never choose their own seedling to harvest – that is okay. Either way, they explore to create something monumental.

Selling the Bounty

We do want our students solving real problems for real people and presenting them to authentic audiences. This is our Farmer’s Market. Students can “sell” their ideas, their solutions, to people who might be able to help them do just that. While no guarantee of success, students can publicly show their bounty – claim their ideas and solutions – share their knowledge – accept the questions and praises – change their world.

Too often their ideas remain locked within the walls of a single classroom, with only a teacher to examine the merits of their hard work. I am not the purveyor of all great work. They need to reactions and feedback of those invested in the same problems that fascinate them.

It’s not impossible to envision a school – a public school – that honors this kind of learning. If given a chance, what SEED would you plant and harvest?

Ripple – It Must Start Somewhere

Posted on Flickr by Eddi van D.

“Ripple in still water/When there is no pebble tossed/No wind to blow” – Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia

Lately we’ve been working in one of my PLC’s on integrating cross-curricular PBL’s into our STEM Academy. Castle View High School is organized into student-selected Small Learning Academies, and it seems the perfect location to take our current curriculum, add real world problems around student interest and ask them to solve. In order to attempt this, we have relied heavily on examples set by other outstanding schools, including SLA in Philadelphia and HTH in San Diego.

While we face several difficult issues, including problems surrounding our 4X4 schedule, unwilling teachers and a school district that does not always support teacher-initiated reform, we have begun planning a Problem Based Project regarding the design and use of school resources based on a school census.

CVHS has been promised a new wing (as soon as the public votes in favor of a bond initiative). While the footprint has been designed, the interior space is created and built to school specifics. While we are just in the planning stages, we have highlighted several Math, Social Studies, Language Arts and CAD skills that can be learned through this process.

We hope this project may start a series of ripples in our own pond, our school. Can we provide the opportunity for our students to toss that pebble, make the wind blow and then sit back and enjoy the effect – waves of change for the better? I sure hope so.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

“Abraham and Issac sitting on a fence/You’d get right to work if you had any sense/You know the one thing we need is a left-handed monkey wrench.” Robert Hunter and Bob Weir

I worked for several hours with my teaching partner today, @MarkMiyashita, attempting to create a general plan for the next 18 weeks and a specific plan for the first four-week unit of 2012. After four hours, I began to wish that I taught in a more traditional class environment. Mark and I teach Social Studies and Language Arts to 50+ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math sophomores in a Humanities II class. Trying to teach the “arts” to STEM kids seems daunting enough, but when each class houses more than 50 students, sometimes it’s downright frustrating. Not the students mind you. It’s the planning and assessing that often cause sleepless nights. While this is true, it’s not the purpose of my venting today.

Today I realized, a little late I’m sure, that I have been trying to find a single cure for what ails me. I’ve been looking for something that does not exist – a left-handed monkey wrench.  If I just have THAT, my students would learn what they should and communicate that in ways that would creatively prove their abilities.  I’ve tried numerous “cures” – teaching in a “reform” school with small learning communities and a Humanities approach to Language Arts, adding specific technologies into my class, “flipping” the learning, focusing in on formative assessments to drive learning. In and of themselves, none of them worked. Since I have become a member of the Twitterverse, I have come to realize that if I want to be successful and have successful, interested and provocative students, I need more than just one wrench.

This should not be news to any educator (but as I have been at this for 20 years…).  As I move forward planning, assisting my students as they learn, assessing their knowledge and abilities, I must focus not on the tools but on the keys – What do I want them to learn, How will I know when they’ve learned it, and What will I do when they have not. No magic left-handed monkey wrench to be found.

Also, I will not compare myself to education’s Greatest Stories Ever Told, as I fear they are based in fiction.