A Learning-Centered Life

You have wasted a day if you haven’t learned something new.

The most recent piece by David Brooks explores “The Question-Driven Life” of Philip Leakley. While “some people center their lives around money or status or community or service to God, [the life of Leakley] seems to be a learning-centered life, where little bits of practical knowledge are the daily currency, where the main vocation is to be preoccupied with some exciting little project or maybe a dozen.

Why aren’t our schools more focused on cultivating learning-centered lives?

What can we do about it?



“First Day” (Part II)

So, I’m lucky enough to work less than two miles from my good friend and fellow educator, @KPlomgren. We went to high school together (actually 7th – 12th) and she was always the one with the most glamorous job of divvy-ing up the bill at the end of a meal. She actually still gets that assignment when we go to dinner with a large group! Some would say that Katie displayed her strengths early in life…she did end up as a CPA and now she teaches kids math in a major way.

At some point today, I saw this tweet from Katie as a part of the #day1wms experiment:

Of course, I wondered what was going on. After speaking to Katie briefly this afternoon, I learned that her “tech mishap” was minor…and in fact, an incredible lesson for her students and to her colleagues as well. On this, the first day of school, her students learned that it’s okay to try, to fail, and to try (and maybe fail) again.

With our conversation still on my mind (and with all of my mistakes opportunities for learning from the day emerging), I came across @boadams1’s post (which includes a short video) about the first day of school. Imagine my surprise when I see my good friend and the excellent teacher @KPlomgren explaining the kind of learning environment that she wants to (co)create during the upcoming school year. Such good stuff. If you watch the video, you’ll hear from 2:16-2:33 that @KPlomgren wants to learn with her students…she wants to make sure they know that “it’s okay to try, to fail, and to try (and maybe fail) again.” What a lesson to impart to young learners on the first day of school. Both in words and in honest-real-life example.

Daily Curriculum Diet

A few weeks ago, Dan Meyer spoke to a group of Atlanta educators during his week of PD with math teachers at two neighboring schools. While the majority of his work  revolves around the math-world, it’s certainly applicable and a good-kind-of-challenging for all educators. (A quick sidenote: I was especially impressed to have one of Trinity’s music teachers attend Dan’s presentation and then engage him for a good five minutes about how his work directly connects to the music eduction.)

During his formal presentation, Dan advocated for all of us to think about cutting “things” out of the routine curriculum diet. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, when she visited Trinity last year, prescribed similar action, encouraging us to think of upgrading to our curriculum (cutting being an obvious step in the “upgrade” process).

Interestingly, as I shared some of Dan’s words and challenges via Twitter, a ninth grade student at a neighboring school responded:

Instead of answering the question (and most certainly boring her), I did what any adult who didn’t know the answer to her own question teacher would do and asked her the same question…”Cut what?”

Within a few days, I received an email from @TaraSubmarine’s which contained incredibly thoughtful, mature, and detailed insight. I have shared her ideas below. It’s amazing what we can learn from those who must “do school” every day…and then head home for a second shift. As we debate endlessly about school reform, I do wonder why do we ignore the most important voices in the room?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about curriculum and how to empower students through deep, authentic learning experiences. I certainly believe that content and skills are important…but I do wonder what content we should cut in favor of meaningful learning opportunities (whatever those may be. 

@TaraSubmarine’s thoughts are below:

When you say “deep authentic learning experiences”, the first thought that comes to mind, is incorporating more practical (real life) or personal applications for what we learn. The practical bit relates more to math and science but could apply to other subjects as well*, which I’m sure you know. The personal application criteria stems from something my dad read once. It said that people retain information better when it forms a connection to something they are already familiar with. Basically, this to me means using already solid blocks of knowledge/information as starting points or diving boards for learning new material. Having both practical and personal applications in a course would make the learning experience more empowering.

I also have some course specific ideas of what to cut and what to replace it with, for the “major” courses.
  • In science, I would use the required reading to tie in with a hands-on experiment and a connection to how it would the concept would appear/be used outside the classroom, thus fostering maximum retention. I would also either cut any extraneous info that wasn’t connected like I mentioned above, or find a way to connect the info and then incorporate it into the curriculum.
  • In math, I would cut the unrealistic problems (pseudo something I think they’re called) and replace them with fun, hands-on problems which after exposure and practice, the students could start developing themselves. Also,  I’ve always heard that if you could teach someone else on a concept then you can know how well you grasp the concept.  The students could see a one unit teaching model, where the teacher incorporates visuals, realistic problems and class participation. Then, they could split up to work alone or in pairs with the goal of teaching a class on their chapter. This could be possibly duplicated for an assessment at the end, in lieu of an exam/test.
  • In the foreign language classes, I like how Trinity uses Rosetta which enables the students to choose from a multitude of different languages. Also, I think a pen pal program, via the Internet to make it easier, should replace random essay writing. And, I feel like the subject material should not consist solely of vocab but also show how this vocab would be used in daily life. Some modules provide videos, but I know that students write these off as cheesy. So I think that the students should have a city of that country, research their customs and incorporate practical applications for the vocab per each lesson. Each student group would be assigned a lesson and teach the rest of the class. This would accomplish the same goals that I mentioned in the math section.

Pretty powerful stuff. And I’ll ask the question again…As we debate endlessly about school reform, why do we ignore the most important voices in the room?

The “First Day”

August 17th marks the first full day of school for all Trinity students. As I walked through the halls late this afternoon, I passed many doors with the lights still on…countless teachers putting the finishing touches on the classrooms, making sure their rooms were most welcoming to the elementary students who arrive before eight o’clock in the morning. Of course, the names on the cubbies, the bright bulletin boards, and the organized reading corner make the classroom feel like an exciting and comforting place. These things are so important. More important than the things, however, are the words and actions of the teacher and those of the students during those first minutes and hours of the school day. At Trinity, we spend the first days of school focusing on strengths chasing and what a difference this makes. What a difference those the first few hours make. What a difference those first few days make.

Ultimately, it’s about relationships…and those first days are invaluable.

At Trinity, we ask all teachers to reach out to their students before the beginning of school. Most teachers write letters or postcards and many students respond by sending pictures and notes in return. In essence, so many of our teachers begin building relationships with their students and embarking on strengths chasing  before those first days.

One of Trinity’s fifth grade teachers, Meredith Burris, did an interesting thing. She included the link to her blog in her (snail-mail) letter to her students. Meredith is an avid reader and plans to post on her blog, “Burris’s Blog for Bibliophiles: A Blog for Book Lovers and Becoming Book Lovers,” throughout the year. Her first post of this school year chronicled her summer reading life and invited readers to share highlights of theirs. The following sentences illustrate how passionate she is about reading, her strengths of writing and reflection, and (of course!) her love of the long days of summer:

I, too, love summer, but I look forward to it for a very different reason. I love summer because I can read – as long and as much as I want, whatever I want, wherever I want, and whenever I want. I love having the freedom to read all day long, if I so choose. I find myself getting up earlier and reading while I eat breakfast, or staying up l late until the early hours of the morning. There’s nothing better than finding a book that’s impossible to put down and having the luxury of not having to do so!

Even though Meredith’s post is powerful, I’m struck by the 20 (and counting!) comments which follow her post. Donovan responds to his teacher’s post almost immediately (on August 2nd…well before the first day of school)  and not only addresses his teacher’s love of summer but also acknowledges the number of books she read and added a few from his own list:

I like summer too Mrs. Burris. I like summer because it makes my schedule more open. Just like you I like to read all night because there is no school in the morning. It is so cool that you read 30 books in this one summer. This summer I read a Rick Riordon book called ” The Throne of Fire”. I am also reading the Hatchet series by Gary Paulson. I am in the middle of a book called “I Am Number Four”. I can’t wait for the school year to start, enjoy the rest of your summer.

If you scroll through all of the comments, you’ll see a beautiful thing. You’ll see relationships being formed around a common topic. You’ll see our Head of School commenting as well as a Trinity staff member and an administrator. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll come across a parent’s comment (a few comments below that of his daughter). Of course, the children’s comments are powerful. That’s a given. They are writing because they care. They are writing to connect. And they are writing to begin to form those relationships that will make their fifth grade year even more rich. Interestingly, I suspect that the adults who contributed are doing the same thing. They are writing because they care enough to connect. To connect with kids, with Meredith the teacher, with the topic, and in essence, with something that’s much larger than themselves.

From the fifth grader to the Head of Trinity School, the “first day of school in Mrs. Burris’s Fifth Grade Class” happened long before August 17th. Those first few real-live hours and those first few real-live days will still be invaluable. But what I know, and what I suspect that Meredith, Donovan, Kate, Allie, Annie, Ginny, Mrs. Berry, Emily, William, Mr. Pulver, Mr. Kennedy, Ellie, Wyatt, Isabella, Josh, Isabel and Eva know, is that August 17th is going to be a special day…and it’s not only because it’s the “first day.”


Connecting Globally

If you haven’t bookmarked the “Great Quotes about Learning & Change” Flickr Group, then you should do so. Right now. It’s a great place to find provocative images and quotes to use in conversations, presentations, and in personal reflections as well.

The site really is that good. This image is one of 706 currently in the group. Cool, huh?

So, I ran across this image today which is a perfect representation of my thoughts and reflections this weekend. Thinking of my Trinity colleagues who will be welcoming children into their classrooms on Wednesday, I began to reflect on my three years of teaching sixth grade at Trinity.  What would I do differently if I were heading back to the sixth grade classroom this year? The short answer: I would make sure that my students realized that they were entering into a classroom situated in the year 2011. Not one from the past…not even one from 2010. Even when I had a 1:1 tablet computing environment, I’m not totally sure that my classroom was as 21st century-ized as it should have been. It’s that whole “technology must serve pedagogy not the other way around” thing. In fact, if I were trying to gain some inspiration about making my classrooms 2011 ready, I’d certainly spend some time reflecting on the five axioms of EduCon, the above quote being axiom #3.

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

So, with those reflections swirling, I decided that my first step would be to find a way to make my classroom a globally connected one. It’s something that fits with each axiom above. Without a classroom to directly influence, I decided to reach out to my Trinity colleagues with three projects which look incredibly promising for the elementary ages. Within a few hours, I had heard from a handful of teachers who were interested in jumping in. In fact, our entire first grade team will be taking part in the Global Read Aloud Project this fall.

I thought I’d share my email here (and yes, I was lazy about the links!):

Dear Teachers,

Are you interested in exploring how to further the Mission of Trinity School and assist your students in becoming responsible, compassionate, and productive members of the expanding global community? There are so many ways to open your classroom to classrooms all over the USA and the world….and there are a number of Trinity teachers who are already doing just that thing!

I wanted to let you know of a few projects that I have discovered that seem to be manageable, interesting, and connected to Trinity curriculum. If you are interested in finding another project, I’m happy to point you in the right direction. There are so many resources out there and so many great projects, engaged teachers, and cool classrooms! I have included the top three that I’ve seen recently. If you would like to talk in greater depth, please let me know! Also, Marsha and Kara would be more than happy to chat and assist as well! It’d be our dream that there are so many globally connected projects happening at Trinity that Kara, Marsha, and I had our hands full with supporting you and your classes!

To Connecting Globally!

1. The Global Read Aloud Project: This project begins on September 19 (and lasts until October 14) and is geared to students in 1st – 3rd Grade (who will be reading Flat Stanley books) OR to students in 4th – 6th (who will be reading Tuck Everlasting).

2. Teddy Bears Around the World: This project has no timeline or deadline…it is geared to students in the Threes, Pre-K, or K.

3. Community Connections Project: This project has a deadline of February 2012 but it seems like it will be ongoing throughout the 2011-12 school year. This project seems to fit students in K – 3rd grade.

Unlocking Unique Potential

As I reflect on the administrative work I do at Trinity, I realize how clear and potent the mission statement of my school actually is.  Yes, many statements of mission/vision sound similar (especially at independent schools) and from the outside, one may think that the Trinity School Mission Statement is like many others. However, I work on a team with members who actively screen each decision they make with the School’s statement of purpose. It’s an incredible model for me and for all of the members of our community.

As I formulate my goals for the 2011-12 school year, I am reminded how two major initiatives of which I am a part (World Languages and the Personal Learning Portfolio) require that our statement of mission is clear, potent, and alive. In fact, my Head of School often states that he is driven, inspired, and obsessed with Trinity’s Mission Statement. As I think of the work I do, the following twelve words especially resonate:

unique potential

responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community

Trinity’s Mission Statement (in full) is below:

“The Mission of Trinity School is to create a community of learners in which each child can acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve his or her unique potential and become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.”

I just finished a very full morning with all of the new faculty and staff at Trinity. As I listened to members of Trinity’s Academic Leadership Team speak about the School, I was reminded of Matt Damon’s speech at last weekend’s SOS March and National Call to Action. The text of his speech is below (to see the video of his speech, click here), but the word that kept coming to my mind this morning (and a word that Damon references during his speech) is the word empower.

As another school year begins, I realize how blessed I am to feel empowered in the job that I do.  Not all educators (and certainly not all administrators) feel empowered (and that is the crux of Damon’s speech) by the work that they do or, generally, by the vision/mission/direction of their school or school system.

What do I know for sure?

I know that as I embark on a new year, I know (for sure) that I am blessed to work in a school where “unlocking unique potential” is the status quo. I am blessed to work in a school with a leader who is known to operate and make decisions based on a mission which is a driving (both inspirational and obsessive) force in his daily work. I am blessed to be a part of a team which can so clearly and succinctly explain to a new group of faculty and staff that unlocking unique potential is why we are here. We must make Trinity’s Mission Statement come alive…we must be empowered and we must empower others.  It’s a big task.  And it’s about time to begin anew…


I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself: my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned, none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success, none of these qualities that make me who I am…can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep…this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, My kid aint taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous. That was in the 70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called overpaid; the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

A Problem-Finder. And A Problem-Solver.

A former Trinity School student is both a problem-finder and a problem-solver. For his Capstone project (the culminating experience of his sixth grade year), AH devised a system to solve the age-old problem of the lost and found. You can watch his 5 minute presentation (with a 5 minute Q&A that follows) which illustrates his prototype: simply put, AH devised a way to use QR codes to systematically solve an issue associated with lost jackets at Trinity School.

AH’s presentation and his follow up meetings with administrators at Trinity were so impressive that I encouraged him to apply to speak at an incredible event aimed at promoting the ideas of playing, building, reaching, and learning. Within two days, AH applied to speak at this conference which is positioned as “a platform for facilitating opportunities to empower kids and support authentic learning.” I think AH’s passion, problem finding and solving, and innate curiosity about the world make him an excellent candidate. I have shared my endorsement of him below in hopes that it will be shared with members of the TEDxKids@BC Team.


I am writing to support AH’s application to speak at TEDxKids@BC in September. AH submitted his application on July 30th, and I truly believe that AH embodies the life metaphors and themes which your event is centered upon. AH is a rising seventh grader who plays, builds, reaches, and learns in myriad ways…both inside and outside of the classroom. I am most impressed with his ability to speak about his passions (from technology to design to athletics to music) with confidence, humor, and clarity. In the past six months, I have seen AH perform in The Mikado in front of an audience of 300, explain his lost/found logistics system to 50 classmates, and most recently, persuade the Academic Leadership and Administrative Team at Trinity School to consider taking his lost and found prototype to a full-scale model within one academic year.

AH describes himself as someone who is “most passionate about school, because I love to learn and express myself, especially when it comes to technology and academics.” When I mentioned the opportunity to apply to speak at your event, AH switched from summertime mode and within three hours emailed a draft of his application. His enthusiasm and confidence is a model for his peers and for the many adults as well. AH would be a solid addition to the group of speakers at TEDxKids@BC because as a rising seventh grader who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, AH…

…is someone who PLAYS FOR LIFE. Although his main interests are in the world of technology, he is one who loves the outdoors and no doubt, gains inspiration from all that nature can teach him.

…is someone who BUILDS FOR PASSION. He is a risk-taker and combines multiple passions seamlessly because he is willing to devote time to things that both interest and intrigue him. In his application to your event, AH wrote of his interest in Make Magazine. He explains that experts provide instructions on how to make everything from everything from everyday items to more sophisticated equipment such as a sous vide emersion cooking bath. In face, this Spring, I made such a machine using components sourced from as far as Australia nad China. This project combined my love of cooking with my interest in technology.” Clearly, his creativity knows no bounds.

…is someone who REACHES FROM THE HEART. AH graduated from Trinity School in May and his interest in continuing his project at his elementary school is about giving to a school which gave to him for three years. AH’s excitement about his lost/found logistics system is based on the fact that he is a problem-finder and problem-solver. He wants to develop a system that will help a community which he cares deeply about.

…is someone who is LEARNING TO BE. Like so many, AH’s innate curiosity leads him to discover amazing things about the world around him and about himself. A goal of his is to improve his public speaking skills and better connect with audiences. As you will see in a presentation he gave to classmates in May, AH is a strong presenter (and resilient when things didn’t go perfectly during the presentation — see 3:40 in the video). Even though he is confident, AH is not one who lacks humility.

I hope you will consider AH’s application to speak at TEDxKids@BC. Not only would he dedicate himself to the endeavor, but he would also gain so much from the experience.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.