Death by elective

Got a problem? There’s a course for that. That’s generally how we problem solve in education. Maybe that’s one reason why so little seems to change.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend three days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking with and learning from entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, designers, activists, journalists, policy makers and of course other educators. While the discussions covered a wide range of fields and subjects, a handful of themes seemed to cut across most of them, all of which seemed relevant to our work at the Workshop. In this series of posts I’m trying to do some thinking out loud about those themes and their implications for our work. 

At the opening session, 15 speakers were asked to present one big idea each, in three minutes or less. It was a fun way to kick things off, and a good way to jumpstart discussions. One woman, a journalist with CNN international, worried that with the internet effectively democratizing access to information, young people were incapable of differentiating good information from bad. In her words, they lacked critical thinking skills.

Her proposed solution? Require every high school student to enroll in a Journalism 101 course.


This is the story of school reform in America. Whether the needs emanate from the education system or not, we seem to think we can solve an awful lot of problems by simply adding to the curriculum. On the flip side, we seldom consider how the way we organize schools, or how we actually teach, might figure in the equation. I can see it now: mandatory Journalism 101 is passed, textbook companies dutifully generate Journalism 101 books, and in classrooms all over the country, students slog through chapter by chapter, reading about how to think critically. There will be a quiz on Friday. And yes, it will be multiple choice.

Don’t believe me? Look at how we teach history. If ever a subject lent itself to the cultivation of critical thinking skills, this is it. And yet in far too many schools what’s in the text is treated as fact, presented to students to memorize and regurgitate at the appropriate moment. (This is why we have curriculum wars in social studies. We’re fighting over how “truth” is represented.)

I absolutely agree that our students need critical thinking skills more than ever. But if you take that idea seriously, I don’t know how you think about teaching any subject in the ways we have usually taught it. Critical thinking comes from having to sift through ideas and information, develop strategies to distinguish good information from noise, and cull that information into something useful. You don’t get there by offering a course about it. You get there by changing how you plan, teach, and assess all of your courses.

My hope is that the Common Core Standards, with their emphasis on building and supporting arguments and engaging with complex texts, will give teachers more freedom to do this kind of work. Most of the teachers I know would welcome it.


Oil Pans and Education

In a previous post, Simon Hauger summed up the first year of the Sustainability Workshop by telling the story of his adventures of changing an oil pan on Michael Clapper’s 2001 Jetta Wagon.  The whole project ended up being anything but straightforward, as Micael and Simon struggled to remove the bolts and then, after learning that there was a special tool for this, ended up making their own tool to put the bolts back in.  The project was frustrating at times, took a lot longer than expected, and teetered on the edge of failure.   Simon ends by mentioning that despite all of this- or most likely because of it- the whole endeavor was extremely satisfying and fun.

Simon then left this gem of a challenge in the post:

“At this point I would like to say something smart about how this parallels teaching and learning but it’s the end of the school year and I’ve got nothing. I’ll count on you to come up with your own inspirational insight – please share it with me when you do.”

So I thought I might take a stab at this, as I think his story speaks volumes about the approach to teaching and learning that goes on at the Workshop.  Let me begin with learning.

First, Simon and Michael ran into problems while doing meaningful work, something they had a vested interest in completing.  I am sure going into it they did not think it would take two days or that they would end up making their own tool to get the bolts back in.  But they did, and they learned far more than they thought they would in the process.  As Matthew Crawford explains so well in Shop Class as Soulcraft, this kind of thoughtful tinkering is how people become good at things, developing an embodied expertise about to make, invent or fix things.  It is also how they get good at solving problems.  It is a process that relies on a peculiar admixture of perspiration, frustration and imagination, that often has its own built in indicators of success.  Either the pan holds oil or it does not, and it is hard not to smile when it does.

Most of us have been in this situation, even if not under the hood of a car.  We venture out into unknown territory, run into problems, and then get to work doing the learning necessary to proceed.   It always takes longer than we might expect, and always involves the frustation of being unsure of how to proceed, of making mistakes, of possibly failing altogether.  But there is something more here than simply changing an oil pan or even writing this blog- it is the immense satisfaction that comes with having figured something out, with having created or learned something new in the process.  So how do you teach this?

You don’t.  You create the situations where students can take up the problems or questions that compel them. Then you create the space for them to make mistakes, and in it a reflective space for them to learn from them.  You create a space for them reach out to others who might know more, to figure out what they might need to learn or do to go forward.  You give them the time to tinker, to try and to fail, and then trust them learn from it.  Perhaps most importantly, you create a space for them to develop a trusting community that can offer perspectives, advice and support, that believes in and values each of its members.   The students and teachers at the Workshop have done just this, and call it their family.

One way to think of the Workshop is as a place where students get the opportunity to learn by doing, by following the questions that compel them into the real world.  Another way to think of the Workshop is as a place where teachers get an opportunity to do the same, to pursue their own ideas about education and to develop them in and through practice.  What I find most compelling about the Workshop is that both the students and teachers have told me more than once that this has been their best year in school.  Imagine that.  It makes sense though because they both got a chance to put their ideas into practice, to build things that matter to them, such as hybrid cars, trusting relationships and yes, a very different kind of school.



Problems scale, but so do solutions

Whether talking about glaciers or cities or people or businesses, the big problems confronting the planet reproduce at ever smaller scale: our nations, our cities, our neighborhoods, our families, even ourselves. But the reverse is true too: the work we do on even the smallest scale can literally change the world.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend three days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking with and learning from entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, designers, activists, journalists, policy makers and of course other educators. While the discussions covered a wide range of fields and subjects, a handful of themes seemed to cut across most of them, all of which seemed relevant to our work at the Workshop. In this series of posts I’m trying to do some thinking out loud about those themes and their implications for our work.

On Wednesday night David Brashears discussed his work documenting the disappearance of high glaciers in the Himalayas. An experienced climber (he’s summited Everest five times), he unearthed archival photos of the glaciers from the earliest expeditions, then climbed with small teams to the exact sites from which the photos were taken, and reproduced them with ultra-high resolution cameras. The results are arresting: glaciers that were 300 feet high just sixty years ago are all but gone today. (See for yourself at In addition to raising public awareness of this alarming trend, Brashears’ organization is working to create an online visual interface for teachers and students, allowing them to document the disappearance for themselves, and to analyze closely the current composition of the glaciers to better understand the reasons for their recession.

Brashears isn’t an educator. He has no idea how teachers will end up using these resources. He wants to learn from them. But looking at the photos and seeing all of the data embedded therein, it wasn’t hard to imagine how we could get students thinking about what this means for them. The Himalayan glaciers feed some of the most important rivers in the world—the Ganges and Yangtze among others—that are the lifeblood of more than a billion people, nearly all of which live in nuclear armed countries. When the glaciers disappear, so do the rivers. When precious resources like water grow scarce, people fight over them. When two of the largest manufacturing countries in the world—not to mention two of the planet’s biggest and fastest growing markets—become destabilized, the things we buy get more expensive, the things we make become harder to sell, and our world becomes vastly less safe. This drains our economy and diverts public resources to defense and security and away from public investment.

In other words, those glaciers that are disappearing halfway around the world, in a place most of us will never see, will affect the lives of every student, teacher and family in our school.

The longtime slogan for getting people engaged on environmental issues is “think globally, act locally.” The idea is to try to make abstract phenomena real and actionable to everyday people. But I’m not sure it really holds true anymore. These days it’s more like, “think globally, act globally.” Just as the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers ultimately affects our students, so too can our students ultimately affect the glaciers.

How? By working with guys like James Abraham, an Indian entrepreneur I met at the festival. James’ company, Sunborne Energy, has the modest mission of producing solar power for millions and millions of people at the same price point as coal. He estimates they may be three years away from getting there. The key? Simple technology. Their plants will be solar thermal—no expensive silicon needed—using readily available, local materials. The concept is not a whole lot different than building a solar cooker, or using a magnifying glass to light a fire. We could start working on this problem next week if we wanted to, figuring out what could be powered using cheap solar technology and how it could be developed and deployed locally. In the process, we would encounter and learn from people and companies that are already there, becoming part of a network, a worldwide team, working to solve a problem with global implications.

The day after Brashears’ talk, Richard Florida gave a fascinating lecture about the rise of cities and what he calls “mega-regions” (such as the DC-Boston corridor). Cities, he argues, are humankind’s greatest invention. In strictly economic terms, the world’s 600 largest urban centers account for over half of global GDP (a figure the McKinsey Global Institute projects to rise to 60% by 2025) while housing just 22% of the world’s population. Yet some cities are more productive than others. Specifically, those cities that attract the most creative professionals are far more productive than those that attract fewer. And creative professionals, it turns out, are not evenly distributed—they cluster in cities like Austin and places like Silicon Valley. But here’s the thing that intrigued me the most: the phenomenon repeats at scale. This clustering of creative people happens at the neighborhood, city, region, national and even global level. At each level it appears to produce similar effects.

This immediately made me think about the vast potential of the Navy Yard, some of which is already being realized, with our students right in the middle of it all. We could not be in a better place to do the work we do. But being successful depends on putting our students in position to create and collaborate. The more they engage in this kind of work, the more they will connect with others, and the more creative problem solvers will be drawn into the growing network. While this obviously benefits our students, it can also benefit the city, the region, even the nation.

Big problems manifest in small ways, but small solutions can also have big implications. I heard entrepreneurs talk about how the first step in any venture is to discover what you really love to do and grow the organization from that passion. Then I heard environmental activists, designers, and urban planners all describe the interconnectedness of the social and ecological worlds, arguing that organizations and institutions—and the networks that connect them—need to be thought of as part of a broader, more comprehensive ecology. There’s a lot of complexity in this worldview, but also a great deal of promise. James found the thing that makes him want to get out of bed every morning and work incredibly hard. It is an extension of his values, his worldview. And the thing he created from that passion could alter the fate of every person on this planet.

What are our students passionate about? What lights a fire under them? And most important of all, what happens when they figure it out, and begin building and creating from that place?

That’s what we’re here to find out.

Thank you, CNN!

A big thanks to CNN for profiling Simon and the Sustainability Workshop as part of its The Next List series!

This summer we’re working on a number of exciting projects, including running a pilot for Bright Ideas and retrofitting our garage into an energy neutral workshop space! To learn how you can support this exciting work, click here.

To learn more about the Sustainability Workshop, please explore the rest of this site, or feel free to contact us. Thanks!


Appreciating the Class of 2012

I told myself a couple of years ago during some difficult times that one of my goals was to learn how to slow down happy moments. The rough ones seem to linger forever, but too often I feel like I rush through the good ones. Maybe it’s because good things make me more optimistic and thus more forward-looking, I don’t know. But bad moments have a way of holding you in the present, whether you want to be there or not. So I’ve been trying to learn from them, and apply those lessons during the good times.

That’s what I was thinking about the morning of Saturday, June 9: graduation at the Sustainability Workshop. I just wanted to listen closely, paying attention to people’s faces and the sound of their voices, and not hurry. It’s more than two weeks later and I still don’t know that I have the right words to describe what it felt like to sit there that morning. There were some great comments. Like one student (I won’t name names) who remarked that they had not really taken school seriously before, and had cut a lot of classes. “But you couldn’t do that here,” he said, “because, well, there was no class.” In some ways that sums us up. We’ve tried as hard as we could to take away the aspects of school that feel like enforcement, and what’s left is the work. (Being a dork, I also thought of the iconic line from the Matrix, there is no spoon, which I’d love to tell you is a reflection of the sense of limitless possibilities we try to instill in our students, but everyone would just laugh at me.) Then there was this gem from Michael, one of our teachers: “I said ‘love.’ And Tyus said, ‘corny.’ And Keith said, ‘awkward’…and Alejandra and I shed a tear.” And again I thought, “Yep, that’s us.” Love, and corny, and awkward. But true.

To say that I am proud of our students doesn’t do them justice. (I am immensely proud of my colleagues, who are truly gifted teachers and great friends.) But when I think about our students this year, what I feel is overwhelming gratitude. They took a chance on coming to us. They worked harder than they had ever worked in school. Every single one of them had to confront failure, often publicly. They got out of their comfort zone. They cared for each other, a lot. When they spoke at graduation, they talked about this place being like a family, and they talked about how much they learned from failing. Without the first of those things, the second never would have happened. What we learned, what we accomplished as a community, was possible because we trusted each other.

When the media tell stories about successful schools, it’s common to talk about how they “transform” students. Many of us have our own stories about how some school experience changed us, and I hope our students do too. But in some ways that misses the point. I think the Workshop is an effort to transform school into something that is more tuned in, more respectful of students. We aren’t trying to fix them – they aren’t broken. And we’re not pretending they’re angels either. What they are is smart, and complicated. And sitting at graduation that sunny Saturday morning, it was clear to everyone present that they are worthy of our fullest attention, and our respect.



You are enjoying this too much

We just completed our first year at the Sustainability Workshop and it was amazing. So what do you do the first week after the school year is over? The highlight of this week for me was the hours I spent over the past few days working on Michael’s car – we talked about the year, shared some ideas about next year, but mostly we just wrestled bolts out of his engine while changing the oil pan. The oil pan on his 2001 Jetta needed to be replaced for some time and while we had great intentions, we were just not able to get to it during the last month of school. And while replacing an oil pan should be very straight forward, like many things in life, it just wasn’t.

There are two infamous bolts that we came upon that made the job really interesting (google Jetta oil pan replacement – there has been lots of blood spilled complaining about them, not much about how to deal with them). I wish I could say that I was immune to frustration but while fighting these bolts, it snuck in. Frustration is a fascinating feeling. When I feel it, it’s usually because I think I’m doing something wrong – that I’m doing something dumb – that I am dumb. Even after 42 years, I can’t seem to steer clear of that feeling. At this point I would like to say something smart about how this parallels teaching and learning but it’s the end of the school year and I’ve got nothing. I’ll count on you to come up with your own inspirational insight – please share it with me when you do.

Once we learned there is a special tool you can buy to get these nefarious bolts to comply, I felt much better. We didn’t know the tool existed while taking the bolts out, so we didn’t think we had any other options. We were actually able to get those bad bolts out without the tool. And with this new knowledge, the feeling of frustration turned to satisfaction. We had accomplished something challenging.  Seeing a picture of the tool after we had the pan off inspired us to make our own version of it. While saving $29.99 plus shipping is satisfying for its own reasons, there is something more satisfying about creating a tool – especially one that works.

This morning, after cleaning the surfaces meticulously, we applied silicone gasket maker and carefully installed the new oil pan. When we got to the two infamous bolts, I grabbed our homemade tool and put it to the test. I wish I could say the bolts just fell into place – well, one did. The second still resisted but eventually it complied. As I was putting that last bolt in, I realized even though we got them out without the tool, we would have never got them back in without it.

As we crawled from under the car, covered in dirty oil and car gunk, I must have been smiling with satisfaction. Michael simply stated, “You are enjoying this too much.” That basically sums up my year.

Real Work

It’s hard to believe we’re coming to the end of our first year at the Workshop. What an incredible year it has been. Engaging students in solving real problems – doing real work in this world – has been both exhilarating and exhausting. To do real work first requires the desire to do so and second, the skills to make it happen. Very quickly we created a community of learners that supported and grew the desire to do the work. And while this type of community is not often found in schools, it’s doesn’t require magic to create. I think it’s true of all human beings – teenagers and adults – that when we are valued as critical members of a community, then we act as such. We all posses unique skills and wonderful ideas and creating a community where those are valued, needed, and called upon is the basis of what we have.

The second part is a challenge. How do you create a balance that puts students at the center of the learning process – that enables ownership over their learning while putting them in a position to succeed? How do you support this role while helping them develop the skills – academic, hands-on, interpersonal, self-awareness, soft, hard, medium – skills to do real work in this world? That part of the work is endless.

This year has been my best year professionally ever. Everyday I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with amazing students and equally amazing adults building the most amazing community of learners I have ever seen. And it’s exhausting. But then again, anything worthwhile usually is.

“I can’t ______________”

My 4-year old daughter can do anything.  She can fly, turn into a cat, sing, write a book, you name it she can do it.  Just ask her.  While she will admit to be working on a few things-she has put off poddy training until she is 5- she is quite forthcoming about being able to do just about everything.

A approximately twenty year old student in my Education and Culture class here at Emory University recently e-mailed me about an article in the NY Times about being black at Stuyvesant High School in NYC.  He asked if we might talk about it in class, as he found it very compelling and knew that another student in class had attended Stuyvesant High School.  Being the student-centered pedagogue/overwhelmed professor that I am, I agreed and asked if he might want to lead the discussion. He agreed and I sent the article to the rest of the class, wondering just what the student was going to do

A little background.  The student is from Jamaica and after attending four very different high schools here in the states- charter, inner-city, private and magnet (I think)- has a passionate interest in improving education for all students.   He is sharp as a tack, one of those students you want to plant in every class to ask the hard questions.

I let him run with it and he did not disappoint.  He had prepared a presentation along with questions that engaged the whole class.  He tapped the student who had attended Stuyvesant and confronted head on the deeper cultural assumptions about race and achievement that ran through the article and for that matter our society.   He hit it out the park to the point where I think the class forgot I was there.  They even forgot about their Iphones and Ipads.  This made me so uncomfortable that I had to reassert my academic omniscience with a ten minute lecture that sent many clambering for their social media. Seriously though, it was one of those moments I live for as a teacher, when students engage each other about questions that are near and dear to them in a respectful and open way.  I think we all learned something that day.

I talked to the student after class and complimented him on his presentation.  I told him he had “professor” written all over him.  Before I could begin to dissuade him from going to graduate school, he laughingly told me he could not write. It stopped me in my tracks, as I realized that he was not kidding.  My mind flashed back to his skimpy essay for the class and it all made more sense.  He could write, but somewhere along the way he had learned that he can’t write.  This meant that he could not be a professor, because as he told me professors write books.

I remember thinking I could not write.  I remember getting back papers that looked as if they had been in a slasher movie, full of red corrections and crossed out words.  Grammar ain’t never been my strong point.  It took me a long time to realize that writing is not grammar, that it is my right, an act of expressing my thoughts and ideas on paper.  It also took me a long time to learn that I could learn to write better, and by doing so even think better.

Which got me thinking about my daughters.  I hope and pray that school does not teach them they can’t write, or for that matter that they can’t_______.  I also hope that in the next two years I can help this Emory student realize that he can write while at the same time help him become a better writer.  I am not talking about instilling in him or my daughters a naive sense that anything is possible, but rather a sense that life is about doing the hard work of moving beyond ourselves, about learning how to take the “T” off of the end of can.



so many d— questions

So this blog has some political content but I don’t really want to talk politics.  I want to talk about what it means to be educated, what it means to learn, and what it means to know what you know and know what you don’t know.   Garry Wills, whose writing and outlook I respect immensely, has a piece on one of the Republican candidates here.  Make what you will of the politics, I’m more interested in how he describes what education can do for teenagers:

At some point, late or early, children disengage themselves from the stories crafted for them. Their loss of belief in the tooth fairy is only slightly behind their loss of teeth. There is a slow motion race to disappear between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The Stork undergoes, for some, a lengthier demise—and “the birds and the bees” do not long outlast it. Others, I hope, soon disabuse themselves of belief in their parents’ infallibility. Certain religious myths are discarded without necessarily losing faith. That I do not believe in Noah’s Ark does not mean that I must stop believing in God—though certain home schooling parents force that connection on their kids.

Minds grow by questioning things, and adolescence is a great period of questions. Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.

While Wills is writing about (and responding to certain claims made about) religion and universities, his thesis represents what school ought to be about, or at least what we’re after at the Workshop.  How do you learn to ask questions?  How do you learn to cross examine texts, beliefs, and ideas on your own?  How do you contextualize these new understandings? How do you take this new knowledge and make a difference in the world?  How do you bring a question from something wriggling in your mind to a full-blown project?   And, as teachers, how do we encourage questions? How do we help students see their questions in the school curriculum? How do we bring the great period of questions that is adolescence into the school day?

It’s personal

We do project based learning at the Workshop. The students come up with a problem. We sit with them and think about how to begin to solve the problem. Together we puzzle over different approaches. We think about different resources. We come up with two to four ways to demonstrate that they’ve effectively addressed the problem. They research, write, argue, build, design, make mistakes, make breakthroughs, listen, learn, daydream, and the project slowly comes to an end. We talk about the process together. We evaluate the work along the way and offer lots of feedback. They reflect about the process and their final product. We reflect on the process and their final product. We sit down together and do a final evaluation.

We’ve written about this project process that we’re adapting. It’s not new or particularly original. I like to think we try to make it effective for our awesome group of students. We have good days and bad days.

What I was thinking about tonight was how personal these projects become and what that means for education.

Most of my time in high school was about keeping “school” away from everything I thought was important. I read a lot but not my school books. I wrote a lot but not for class. I thought a lot about music, about listening and playing it, but the moment school touched any part of that, I’d withdraw. The few times I tentatively tried to insert my passions into a class didn’t go well. You can’t write this paper that way. That’s not what I asked for. Yes, you still have to do this. And I didn’t want to buy in — buying in didn’t appear to offer me much. Of course, it’s a good bet my high school teachers remember another kid with enormous potential who was lazy or crazy or both.

Project based learning is personal. If it’s done right, it’s personal. It’s your idea and there’s a team of folks waiting to help you make it real. Sometimes it’s with others as a group project and sometimes you’re working alone. When it goes well, it’s a triumph. You’ve brought something into this world, however rough or in need of work. You will probably fail at first because any worth doing is difficult and will necessarily require multiple tries.

Think about how scary and new this must be for students used to six or seven classes where they can doze, where they can offer one or two answers to prove their involvement, where they can take a test that they spent less an hour preparing for and get a B-, where they can write a paper in one sitting and get a C+. You almost never have to engage or put your own passions into it.

At the Workshop, though, you’re in a large house with a bunch of individuals who want you to dream up your own idea and carry it all the way through and who are relentless in pushing your forward. It’s pretty awesome. It’s what school should feel like. It’s real so it’s scary and risky and messy. Having just watched the latest round of projects, I feel how deeply personal this process can become. I’m immensely proud of this last round of student projects, regardless of outcome, because of the personal investment they’ve all put forth, the chances they’ve taken in trying to create something new, and the ways they’ve begun to genuinely take charge of their own education.

One exhausted and contented teacher, going to bed.