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Today's podcast is all about designing spaces for learning. Often, we think of a teacher's role as creator - someone who is making the learning happen within their room. But we can look at this in a more nuanced way. To completely steal Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox's explanation from in this podcast, when we plan an experience, we're already aware of what outcomes will be achieved. We're planning for what's going to happen next and already have each step in mind. In contrast, to design an experience - or space - we're opening possibilities for students to learn in multiple fashions. We have a general idea of where we want to be, but we're side-by-side in that learning experience.
Dr. Pam Moran, superintendent of the widely acclaimed Albemarle County Public Schools and co-author of Timeless Learning. Pam is an avid proponent of progressive education and designing schools that ignite learning.
Tim Fawkes, a high school music educator set on redesigning the classroom as an equitable, democratic space through embracing student voice, choice, and experiential learning.
Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox, an international educator and current assistant principal at the International School of Uganda, where she focuses on igniting learning through well-designed opportunities for staff and students.
Tosha Woods and Natalia Parker, founders of the Discovery Lab, a self-described “micro school.” Tosha and Natalia started this school as concerned parents and community members to provide an outlet of progressive learning to students.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Season 3 Episode 8 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today's podcast is all about designing spaces for learning. When we think of a teacher's role as creator, someone who is making the learning happen within their room, but we can look at this in a more nuanced way. To completely steal Ryan Hopkins Wilcox's explanation from this podcast, when we plan an experience, we're already aware of what outcomes are going to be achieved, we're planning for what's going to happen next, and we already have each step in mind. In contrast, when we design an experience, or design a space, we're opening possibilities for students to learn in a lot of different fashions. We have a general idea where we want to go, but we're side by side in that learning experience. This is such an incredibly powerful message that is core to progressive education. We speak about student voice and choice, but that's not choosing preset options given by the instructor. When we say choice, we're referring to a plethora of possibilities that each student has to meet a learning objective, and we want to make that learning goal as broad as we possibly can to ensure that all students can be engaged. I'm so excited to share the messages of our guests today, but first, I want to implore you to visit our Patreon page. There you'll find a place to support this podcast, as well as the free resources that we're pumping out every week. For as little as $1 a month, you'll know that you're keeping this endeavor afloat, and plus, you'll receive a professional electronic magazine with so many human-centered ideas in education. A few of our patrons who sponsored this podcast are Carolyn Weiserrecht, Dylan Wentz, and Rachel Lawrence. I'm humbled by your support and can't wait to see the experiences that we create together. You can learn more about our Patreon page, as well as find everything about the Human Restoration Project at humanrestorationproject.org and on Twitter, at HumeResPro. I think the thing that excites me most about education is the ability to craft learning experiences. My why in education is to find cool ideas, make simple foundations and structures for them to flourish, and pass almost all control over to students to make that happen. Of course, there's a lot of barriers that exist in making the why of our purpose as educators happen. Some of us get caught up in the systemic barriers to learning, whether that be the topics that might seem meaningless, or maybe students aren't getting enough support, maybe we don't have enough free time, we aren't getting enough pay, or maybe there's just the general way that our classrooms look and feel. I think that many, if not most, students are in this exact same boat. They may be excited from time to time on their why at school, after all, everyone loves to learn about things they care about, but they're just not getting that when they go to school. If you walk into most school buildings, you'll find a fairly bland and sterile environment. It may even be prison-like. Some of that is lack of funding, but there's also a system of control that manifests itself in having a very comatose environment. If you make everything too crazy and wild, maybe the students will go crazy and wild too. I don't know if that's the idea, but it certainly seems that way. The fact is that, for educators, we have the capability to design learning spaces that tear down the barriers as much as we possibly can to allow learning to happen. Sure, there's a lot of things outside of our control, and sometimes we're working against the best interest of our employer, the state, the board, etc. And you know, maybe the state and board have lost their way on what learning is. Maybe they're more concerned about state test scores, or upholding the way things were when they were in school. But we, as teachers, can continue to press on and design the most open and interesting environments that we can. Those learning environments are both physical, you know, the way things look and feel, as well as conceptual, how our learning itself is designed. We have four guests on today that exemplify these ideas, from a superintendent who designs schools to be honestly incredible, to a music educator who's making his classroom equitable and democratic, to an administrator at an international school who's designing experiences for her students and staff, to two parents and educators who created their own school to do what's best for their children. I can't wait to share these voices with you, so let's go ahead and get started. First we have Dr. Pam Moran. Pam is the superintendent of the widely acclaimed Albemarle County Public Schools, co-author of Timeless Learning, and an avid proponent of progressive education. We start off our conversation on what it means to design a co-created space between educator and student.
Pam Moran: I would describe a co-created space as being one where kids have a real sense of ownership for the environment, just as teachers do, that it truly represents teachers and kids able to work together, whether it's at the high school level, the middle school level, or even, you know, five-year-olds in a classroom, so that, you know, if you've got a block center set up that kids know that they can go in and they can build and the blocks can spill out into other spaces or that they can move them around and envision that building a castle or towers or spaceships or whatever it is that their imagination is doing with them as learners, that they have control over that environment in the classroom, as well as in the outdoors. I mean, one of the things that I really love is that a number of schools that I've worked with over the years, both inside and outside, have access to wonderful natural areas. And too often, what we do is to think about the woods, the grasses, the playground areas are only reserved for specific times of the day or not at all, you know, that everything is off limits to kids. And what I've really seen is that when kids get access to be able to design, build, play, in the outdoor world, they take what they're potentially learning with a teacher from inside the classroom outside. And so, you know, I loved seeing recently a group of girls that had created basically a lodge structure, woods along the edge of their school grounds. And they had built this wonderful, fantastical structure as a lodge. And I just I think about, you know, that when kids are given the opportunity to use materials, to use the furniture in an environment in ways that really allow them to go to that next place as learners that perhaps a teacher would not have even envisioned, but the kids do. All of a sudden, you have an environment that belongs to the kids, and they see it as part of their world and not as something that's off limits or that is restricted to adults manipulating it. I mean, I think that's one of the things that we as humans do is that we manipulate the world in which we live. You know, there's a reason why people love to rearrange their homes at times and move things around, you know, to make their world more comfortable or more accessible or more usable. And our kids, when they're in schools that allow that, support that, facilitate that, start to become self-determined learners versus being kids who are waiting for an adult to let them do something. And so that's what I really love about co-creating environments, and I've seen that in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. But it does involve shifting power from a teacher being in control of every aspect of the learning world to really sharing that power, that authority, that opportunity for kids to be a part of the creation of spaces for learning.
CM: Now, the idea of co-creating a space for many listening to this podcast is probably something that, you know, we're on board with. But there's no denying that many have lost their way, so to speak, and they're not used to the things that you're talking about. How do you go about educating the educator on why we need to design learning this way?
PM: You have to start by providing people with opportunities to engage with people that can help to scaffold their learning. You know, we talk about that a lot. Bogotzky, you know, many decades ago talked about the concept of scaffolding, that you have to start with where people are, whether it's a child or whether it's an adult, and figure out how do they start to build the structures that allow them to go farther up the ladder or up the scaffold in terms of their own learning. And so, you know, one of the things that I think sometimes that we make a mistake in education is that we, you know, discover as building-level administrators or superintendents, you know, in the structures that we have in the United States for leadership, that we tend to think of programs that we bring in, and we try to replicate that with fidelity in everybody's space. And some people are going to be more ready to take on, quote, a new program, and others not. And oftentimes, programs fail because the leaders have really neglected to take advantage of our own understanding of the importance of terroir in our lives, that, you know, I love Deborah Fries and Margaret Wheatley's work in Walk Out, Walk On, where they talk about that if you plant grapes in France and you plant grapes in the Napa Valley, that you get differentiations in wine because of the difference in terroir. But in our school communities, we tend to think of everything through a one-size-fits-all model. And people aren't like that. People are individuals. People are unique. And teachers like kids are at different levels of openness and developmental stages to incorporate change into their world. So I think that one of the things that I've discovered over time is that you have to really think about how do teachers get opportunities to see what it looks like when you start to release some of the control to kids in a classroom in terms of environment or even their own learning. I noticed that in Twitter that Chad, who's one of our three authors of Timeless Learning, actually has kids writing curriculum right now that they want to teach some of their own classes. And these are middle schoolers, and so they're developing their own curriculum. So you have to be able to provide teachers with opportunities to get to that place. They've got to see it. They've got to experience it. They've got to be encouraged to and supported in taking risk. And when things fail, rather than seeing the failure as something that's so scary because of the fear of the impact that it will have on your evaluation as a teacher, that you've got to be able to say, so yeah, you know, it didn't work out the way that we thought it would, what would you do differently? How would you modify that? And so I think that what I see is in the best of school communities that teachers feel supported to take risk, to take steps that in some cases are baby steps and in some cases people are ready to run, but that the expectation is that we're always trying to deepen engagement of kids. We're trying to have kids to become as self-determined in their learning as possible, and you do that through conversation, through supportive focus, through encouragement, and that when things don't always work out the way that we envisioned, that rather than turning it into that sort of sorting and selecting of who was successful and who failed, that we see life as a series of successes and failures that we all go through. And as leaders, that's our job, is to support that kind of risk-taking with teachers. But I think the other thing too, Chris, quite frankly, is that too often teachers don't have access to what I call the why curriculum. Why would we change space in different ways? Why would we really focus on reducing curriculum so that kids have more opportunity for deep learning versus superficial learning? Why would we use place-based environments as teaching tools, teaching spaces? Why do we believe that making is a critical part of who we are as humans? I talk about that seldom do I run into a person that doesn't have some passion that involves them using their hands to make something. For some people that's about cooking, for others it's about knitting, for others it's about building something in the shop, for others it's about painting, I mean humans it seems like are born to be makers of their own learning and yet you get to school at age five and what do we do? We take as much of that opportunity for people to engage with their hands and their minds and their hearts as possible and we restrict it to this very narrow viewpoint of learning that we call the academics and that is oftentimes measured in ways that are superficial, maybe efficient but tell us very little about the wealth of what children bring to their experiences in terms of their background knowledges and understandings of the world that we can use to really build towards that deeper learning and so I may be rambling a bit here as I often may find myself doing but I feel like that the biggest issue that we confront is that we created over the 20th century this very compliance driven learning environment and subtracted out so much of what we consider to be at least the authors of timeless learning what we consider to be the strategies that are the deep sort of deeply embedded ways that humans access learning that seems to almost be a part of our DNA and said let's put those things over here because the way that we're going to teach and the way that kids are going to learn is going to be in this very limited environment, sterile as you said and focused very much on a breadth of trivia pursuit knowledge base that kids forget almost as soon as they finish the multiple choice test that they've had put in front of them.
CM: So, a personal example for me surrounding these ideas is that when we try to enact change at our school, we tend to get obsessed with some really hard to change ideals. For example, we visited High Tech High and we do a pretty good job at incorporating PBL but a lot of us look at the other things too which might not seem like a big deal at first but we look at things like dress code for example. There's a dignity and respect issue there when it comes to both student and teacher. Then we come back and say, well, how about we change dress code? And that sparks an argument that basically lasts until nothing else from our trip is ever going to be discussed. So, how do we go about talking about designing the change that you're describing without getting too bogged down in one particular field or just exhausting ourselves in general?
PM: Well, I think that every, as I said, every school community and district has its own terroir and there are sacred cows that are part of the traditions of education that we've evolved up. If you think about if you were to go back to the early 1900s or late 1800s, I doubt if there was a lot of conversation about dress code but that became something that is part of that commanding control structure that we kept deepening over the 20th century and I believe that the more that we selected for compliance in the adults in schools, the more that they came up with new ways to really go after compliance with kids. It was interesting because we had a visitor from Australia a few years ago to Albemarle Schools and he kept taking pictures in a middle school of kids and kids had on hats and they were dressed in a variety of ways and we said, why are you taking these pictures? He said, because I want to go back and say to my friends in Australia, those of you who think that the only way that you can control kids' behavior and have a good discipline is through uniforms. Here's an example of a school that has kids who really are well-behaved young people, you know, very caring community and they're in anything but uniforms. You know, we tend to rely on outside structures like dress codes and I call that an outside structure because the reality is we create these outside structures in schools that are very much alien to the way kids live their lives. Our kids, when they get opportunities to have a level of control that brings who they are from the outside into school and to have the way they dress, the music they love, the games they play, the TV shows they watch, the things that they like to do, that's what really gives I think schools the opportunity to capitalize on kids come to us knowing different, not less than each other but a kid coming to us from a rural community into a school brings a knowledge of the world that's very different than a kid that's raised in an urban environment. They don't know less than each other but they do know different and when you're able to utilize what kids know and experience in their lives, you know, we talk about cultural responsiveness as really a critical part of what we as educators need to be able to do to create communities that are inclusive and equity-based but the reality is that we oftentimes create structures, outside structures that we bring into school like dress codes or cell phone bands or curriculum that we've created around the knowledge that we think kids need to acquire that really put kids outside the learning versus bringing them inside it. And as Iris said that one of his most wonderful experiences spending a day with a teacher that he always tried to get in and spend time and loved to be in middle schools in particular but he was in a classroom and the kids were doing, they were creating a museum about westward expansion and they were creating and making whether it was digital or whether it was poster or whether it was cardboard but they were going to create this class museum and he said that one of the things that he realizes that this teacher had basically abandoned all the rules that tend to pit teachers and kids against each other and as a result of that that the kids were so engaged in the learning work that they were doing because there were no fights over how you were sitting or whether you were working on the floor or whether you were standing or whether you were chewing gum or looking at your cell phone maybe to see, you know, if your mother had texted you or a friend, you know, had texted you that when kids are given the same sort of parameters that they have in their own homes to lounge on the floor to read versus, you know, sit in a rigid chair all of a sudden when you take away the outside forces that have traditionalized our schools in ways that create boundaries between the teacher and the student you start to see when you take those things away what you really start to see is the raw energy of learning that is possible and that's something that was very rare for a number of years but the thing that for me, Chris, right now that is so empowering and I wish I had 30 more years to spend in education and maybe I will, my mother's 97 so maybe I'll still be doing education when I'm in my 90s but I do feel like that there seems to be sparks of innovative thinking about what's possible and taking that which we thought was impossible and making it possible that's just sparking not just, you know, in schools in the United States but it's really all over the world. I think that we're on the cusp of finally getting back to the roots of who we are as learners that can have the potential to empower a kind of learning that we probably haven't seen in, you know, if not decades even possibly hundreds of years or thousands of years.
CM: Right, right. I think what we're talking about here is spot on and I want to go further on this idea of relevance and how we make the learning that happens in school matter to students. Sometimes I take an issue with educators even though I don't think this is done maliciously that they're trying to take what students love, for example, Fortnite and pair it with traditional standards that they're already using and these types of connections make no sense because that's not really a part of the student space. It's not even necessarily useful information. How do we create relevant learning experiences that actually matter to students?
PM: The push for relevance when I started teaching and I started teaching in an open space school, middle school in 1975. So I've been doing education a long time and was fortunate to start in a very progressive environment that was, you know, inquiry based and hands on and really focused on how do you get kids? I mean, we didn't talk about the word engagement at the time, but it was really about active learning. How do you activate kids as learners? But I think about relevance that relevance back in that day was, you know, you get a textbook and at the end of a chapter, there's a picture of if you're studying planets at the end of the chapter, there is a something on the space program. You know, there's like a little paragraph that you read in the kids. So that makes it relevant. And then as you moved into the 80s and 90s, relevance kind of became more embedded in the text so that you would actually maybe read about NASA as you were looking at in earth science at astronomy themes. Maybe the teacher would bring a telescope out and everybody could like look through the telescope, you know, and you know, you're making it relevant. And now, you know, I think about, you know, and Chad really nails it when he says in the book that what we used to do was to take content and try to put some context into it. But what really will be the power of learning in this century? And kids are doing it outside of school all the time now. And you see some of the more interesting work that goes on in school being kids are creating a context that's about their lives and what they really find of interest. And then you try to put the content into that context, but it's not taking their love of Fortnite and going, let's make some traditional math problems from it. But it could be that one of the things that teachers start to understand is that gamification is a way that humans love to learn. We love games, whether it's board games or computer games or sports games on a field, we like to watch people gaming and we like to participate in games. So what a teacher might do is to take a gaming context that is really a space that kids occupy. They occupy the space of gaming and say, how do I really gamify some of the work that, you know, that the adults deem important to learn that pulls kids in naturally to it? But what I have found is that math is the worst case scenario for people trying to make relevant that which is not to kids. So, you know, it's everything from from stupid math problems about how many balloons that you would need if you had a party and invited 20 people and you had red balloons and blue balloons and you wanted to equally distribute them and so forth and so on. Kids could care less about that because they know if kids come to a party, what you're going to do is you're going to have a bunch of balloons and people will grab them if they want them or not want them. And you'll end up using them to put water in them and throw at each other and stuff. But they're not interested in doing math problems about balloons. You know, and so that for me is one of the reasons why we fail so badly at math. We haven't really figured out how do you take the context of what's really of interest to kids, the ways that people learn and figure out how do you create a synergy that makes sense in math. You know, I was saying somebody said the other day on Twitter, there was a thing about women, why there's so few women in leadership. And one of the women said that she didn't really pursue leadership because of the fact that she really didn't want to have to deal with fiscal issues that are associated with being a principal or a superintendent. And I came back and I, you know, and it was almost like that, that people think of math as being magic and that it's only accessible to a few people and not many. But, you know, for me, one of the things that I always found of most interest is, you know, and as a superintendent basically to do budgeting in a school system, you've got to be able to add, multiply, divide, subtract, do some percentages in decimal places. But it's basically just, you know, it's like your finances in your home. But the most important thing you have to be able to do is to take the pie that you're given and figure out how to have as much of that pie going into direct services as kids as possible. That was always a challenge and always something that you had to think about through an opportunity pathway in order to do that well and, you know, and to figure out who else needs to be involved in that process. And so that for me made math very relevant and meaningful. But, you know, it's like, you know, I was telling Jeremy Williams the story about a kid who became a barber at age 14 in our system and he figured out how to really finance up things for his family, for himself, how to be able to expense costs. And it was so real for him. And yet what we do with kids is to make the idea of money, which kids love money and doing things with money. We create all of these relevant, irrelevant activities for them that make no sense and they could care less about. But if you know your kids and you're able to figure out how to get them involved in co-creating some interesting experiences around that, all of a sudden you'll have kids doing math in ways that you never envisioned. When we built tree houses, which was probably one of my scariest moments as a superintendent was seeing tree houses being built inside a school cafeteria. I thought the kids were going to build benches. They decided they wanted to build tree houses to make their dining experience more interesting. And boy, it did. Math teacher at the school said to me, Pam, in the last two weeks of building these tree houses, kids have learned more about fractions and using fractions than they have probably since they started learning fractions in third grade. These were seventh graders. And he said, it's just intuitive to them that they've got to understand fractions to be able to do measuring to build the tree houses they want to build. And so that's what I think about is how is it that we create with kids a context for learning that allows us to input content when it's appropriate and when kids signal us, I need to know this in order to be able to do something that's really important to me. Ira goes a little nut circle over the concept of genius hour and we all love genius hour and we all love Google time. You know, how do you get kids involved in quote interest or passion projects? But he always says, what if the school week was genius week and what we did was a direct instruction hour? He said, you know, obviously there are times when kids need to be engaged with a teacher in something that feels more direct and explicit, but why do we have 80% of the time so focused by the teacher directly and very little indirect learning time where kids are pursuing that which is of interest and value from their perspective as a nine year old or a 12 year old or an 18 year old? Most of what we do in public schools today in this country is driven by the number of tests we give. And we know teacher after teacher says, oh, that test doesn't really tell you what that kid can do. And yet that's what we continue to do over and over and over again. I'm really proud of the state of Virginia because they've eliminated a number of their state tests and continue to look at how do we have more local control that lets kids show us what they can do through project focus, through performance focus versus through these multiple choice tests. And I see other states are really trying to move towards that. I think that's really the big battle line for education today in this country is that as long as teachers feel like their livelihoods and their kids' livelihoods are so dependent on test scores, it's really hard to step out of that box and try things that are incredibly relevant to what kids need for this for this century and the 22nd century. We've got a lot of kids alive right now. They'll be alive in the 22nd century. My gosh, what will that be like?
CM: Based off your experience in the education system and specifically your engagement and progressive ideas, what hopes do you have for the future of education? Is it dim? Do you think we're finally going to make widespread change happen?
PM: The work that we did that's represented in timeless learning, and we certainly couldn't represent all of the stories. I tell people I could fill room after room after room after room with teachers and kids who have done amazing work in our former district. Chad is continuing that work there. But the reality is that that work is happening all over the country right now. You're aware of it. You're profiling it. And we need to just keep uplifting those stories because our parents realize that what our kids have been getting is really meals that are not healthy meals of learning. And I think our parents yearn for healthy meals our kids do and our teachers do. So I think the tide has the potential to turn. We're not there yet. But I think with a lot of work and keeping that flame, not just sparking but connecting to build bigger flames, that we have the potential to really set on fire the learning that is possible for our kids. So thank you for being one of those sparks. I really appreciate having the chance to talk with you.
CM: If any of these ideas resonated with you, I'd highly encourage you to check out Timeless Learning by Pam Moran, as well as Ira Sokol and Chad Ratliff. I've linked the book in our review in the show notes, and I really think it's worth checking out.
Tim Fawkes: My name is Tim Fawkes, Fawkes like Guy Fawkes, who famously tried to blow up Parliament in the early 17th century. My career has been teaching music, mostly instrumental music. I've taught a little bit of elementary, some middle school, a lot of high school and a little bit of college, orchestra, band, guitar, piano, a little bit of music theory, a little bit of general music. And the last 10 years, most of my job has been teaching strings, orchestra, class guitar at a high school 20 miles due west of Chicago in a town called Lombard, Illinois.
CM: Tim Fawkes wants to radically change the music classroom to be equitable for all. This is a personal topic for me. Both of my parents are music teachers, and I grew up in orchestra, choir, playing piano, and I absolutely love music education. So when Tim reached out to me wanting to talk about this stuff, I was super stoked. So starting off, I wanted to figure out what caused Tim to start rethinking his class.
TF: I've taught for close to 20 years now, and I feel like my teaching has gotten so much different as one would hope it would after you've taught for almost 20 years. I used to be really focused almost exclusively on how the students could perform. What was the end point of the performance? And could that performance be as close to mastery as possible? Every year or two, I would have another epiphany that would make me realize that I was making myself unhappy and that my unhappiness was making my students unhappy because my sole focus was the product they could produce at the end. I didn't think at all about the process and how I wanted the process to feel. As the world has changed, as my students have changed, as the political environment in the nation and the world has changed, I think it's forced a lot of us to think about, well, gosh, what are we really doing here? And I have had a number of epiphanies that have kind of had to do with what my students feel and what my students think and how making music might be useful to them for reasons that don't have much to do with music, that have to do with their happiness and their agency and their emotional self-regulation and their problem-solving skills and their sense of connectedness to something within their souls and their sense of connectedness to other people. And so that is entirely where I live these days, that it's making music. I was going to say studying music, but really making music, you know, that every day is the goal and every day is, you know, you're living it all the time. So making music and living in music, you know, what that does in terms of helping all people be happy and self-actualized.
CM: Right, right, right. I'm curious what this looks like in practice then. Like, what does it mean to make a more democratic music classroom?
TF: Music classrooms, and particularly there's some difference between ensemble music classrooms. You need your band rehearsal, your choir rehearsal, your orchestra rehearsal, as opposed to something like class piano in a piano lab where every kid might be doing their own thing. But the ensemble music classroom is a curious thing. You know, on the one hand, we've sort of been doing project-based for, you know, over 100 years. But the flip side of it is the instruction is so teacher-centered, you know, at every turn. It's the teacher chooses the music. The teacher chooses the warm-ups. The teacher seats the students in the way that the teacher needs to seat them. The teacher delivers all the instruction. And a lot of the instruction is just the teacher telling students, do this, do this, do this. Don't do this. No, not like that. More like this. Hey, you over there. Be quiet. You know, it's all kind of coming from the teacher in the traditional model. But if we only operate that way, we never teach the students how to, you know, how to exist with each other and how to have a society. And I am becoming more and more interested in like, gosh, we have to teach people how to have a society. I do a lot of things to connect the students to other students. So we'll have, you know, we'll have evening events before the start of the year that are purely social in nature. And they might be, hey, all the students in orchestra come and let's play games and have a scavenger hunt at the school. Or let's take a bus into downtown Chicago and see an outdoor concert by a professional orchestra. In class, I try to build in time for students to interact with each other. And sometimes I kind of structure that. For whatever reason, I find as a person who teaches mostly string instruments, I tend to attract a lot of introverted students, not all, but I think more than in the average classroom. So I have to structure opportunities for them to interact with each other. So sometimes I'll use random group generators to generate groups for them to chat about their weekends in. And in those things, you know, sometimes we'll do, you know, we'll have mock conversations or we'll talk about, you know, before the start of the conversation, hey, if a person says thing X, you know, what can you do other than just like letting that hang there silently? And so we'll talk about like how to answer a follow up, you know, ask a follow up question and how to answer a follow up question and how to keep the conversation going and how to sustain eye contact with a person. We on Fridays, we do we do shout outs. So all week, students can fill out a shout out and put it in the shout out box. One of the kids in the class reads the shout outs on Fridays, try to have the students work in groups as often as possible. In my orchestra classes, the students are assigned stand partners. And I, I just kind of nurture that stand partner relationship. So we have every year in the spring, we do stand partner appreciation day. And so the kids are welcome to, you know, write a note or buy a small gift for their stand partner. I also bring a bunch of things that they can give to their stand partner that the kids set up and decorated a photo booth so they can take, you know, they can take pictures with their stand partner. I let students post those on the class social media accounts. So a lot of it is just kind of structuring those human interactions. And then it's, it's always that question, Chris, I find as, okay, what are the things that I'm deciding that they can decide? Can they pick the music? One of my extracurricular groups performed at our state music convention in January. And I set up a Schoology group as soon as I found out we got accepted to do that. And I had the students discuss their repertoire ideas, and they really steered most of it. And I, you know, some of their suggestions I just took and we did them a couple of them, I kind of steered them, you know, slightly, but they can pick the music, can they diagram what needs to be done in rehearsal to make the music more performance ready? Sometimes in my non performance classes, my guitar class or my piano class, sometimes if there's a period where the next the next kind of unit is not immediately clear, the district issued curriculum for my guitar two class is the words guitar two. So we're always just kind of making it up as we go along. Sometimes it's a matter of just asking the students, well, what do you want to learn about? And I find a lot of students had never been asked that, as I'm sure you do too. Some of them can't quite articulate a lot of ideas in that way, because that that cap hasn't really been turned on for them. But I think even with those students, it's not wasted time because you're you're kind of turning on the tap and getting them to take more control. And then, you know, some of my students will just tell me, Oh, well, we want more of this, we want more of this, we'd love to learn more of this. Do you have any songs like this that we could play? And and I'm thrilled about those things. So those are my those are my main types of things that I that I try to do to build the classroom climate. It's a lot of structuring ways for them to connect to each other, making sure that they have ways to celebrate and complement each other, you know, making sure they know each other's names, helping them practice those things, and then just giving them as much decision making power as as they can.
CM: The infusion of critical pedagogy with the arts is one of the most interesting topics and I love the idea of flipping the narrative on arts instruction in particular, considering how much music and art relates to I suppose, our soul. It's how we see and feel in the world, giving the opportunity for students to really connect and feel that's really powerful. Do you feel any struggle when giving up or changing from what's usually a traditional stand and deliver model when it comes to music education?
CM: Instrumental music classes and choir classes to spend a chunk of a year not rehearsing in the big group, but students are split up and they're working on solo work or chamber ensemble work, really valuable stuff, really valuable stuff. Early in my teaching career, I used to have students in solo and ensemble time who would ask me, hey, we don't want to play this Haydn piece, can we play something from The Little Mermaid? And I'm, you know, like at first those kinds of things annoyed me, because I would feel like, oh, great, now I have to find music for you, or I have to arrange music for you. I can't believe this. But now I totally come around on this whole thing. So I don't even call it solo and ensemble. I call it PYP for pursue your passion. And so the students do everything from we're going to learn a masterwork of chamber music by Mendelssohn or Brahms, to five sophomore violinists are going to learn the melody to their favorite Bruno Mars song and perform it with the original song operating like a karaoke track everywhere in between. I had a couple seniors who are really into like indie folk rock. So they covered a Lumineers song. I had kids learning theme songs to their favorite TV shows and from like, you know, YouTube things that I've never heard of. And all of a sudden, you know, it became less of a chore for them to do and less of a chore for me to teach it. You know, attempts by teachers to like make the content relevant. I mean, great, right? Great. But sometimes we don't, sometimes we don't know what's relevant to them. And so sometimes if we just click, I will slave away for weeks on something that I hope will be relevant to them. And then it's not and then I crushed about it. And so I finally learned to not do that and instead just ask them what they want and help them do that.
CM: And something that's really stuck out to me about your interest is this idea of equity and what that means. I mean, music class does have the opportunity to be very reflective of the population. But there are a lot of racist and sexist stereotypes a lot within the class itself, as well as the curriculum. How do you go about creating an equitable classroom?
TF: It's a big question in the profession. I think that music teachers need to recognize how white our literature is and has been. And so the question of like, do you know, do working class Latinx students want to play Mozart? Well, actually, a lot of them totally do. But also, one must reckon with the question, you know, it ranges from, gosh, the vendor that that might rent instruments, usually have people who, you know, who speak the languages that the families in your community speak at home. You know, if there are a lot of Spanish speaking families in your community, is there a vendor who can speak Spanish and drop contracts in Spanish, for instance? We've made a huge effort and secured some grant funds to secure more instruments that are owned by and live at the school so that our low income students can have them. And that's been really important for us the last number of years. You know, there are genuinely a lot of students who I don't think would have participated otherwise. I find with students who want to be music majors in college, but maybe who don't come from the typical background of those kinds of, you're right, like, they don't have the background of that type of students. I need to teach them how to kind of play the college admissions game more. The idea of, you know, choosing college audition music and how you schedule a college audition and what that means and the kinds of things you need to be working on. I find more of those things fall to me, rather than, well, have your parents figure it out, have your private lesson teacher figure it out. You know, so it's, I'm walking side by side with the student on those things. And I love that. There's also the issue of the class material. Our high school started this past year running a hip hop production course. And we're one of just a few high schools that have a class like that. In our school district, that class is the only majority black enrolled course in the entire school district. So it tells us, oh gosh, we're reaching students we hadn't been reaching, you know. And the class came out of a deep look at the demographics of our school, and then a deep look at the demographics of our music program and realizing, oh gosh, here are the populations of students that aren't really taking our classes. And so, yes, we need to market better. Yes, we need to reach out better. But also, maybe we're just not offering things that some groups of students want. You know, we've tried also to make sure that our class material is a little bit more diverse. I was ashamed a couple of years ago to go back through, you know, eight years of concert programs and realize almost every piece was composed by a white male. Almost every one. You know, and a lot of that is, you know, orchestras have hundreds of years of repertoire. And most of the stuff that is available for us was composed by white men. But no excuses at this point. And we know we have to work harder at those things. And my students have had, and I have had some real deep conversations about those things, about repertoire, about the classical music field. We've talked about, you know, what are the barriers to entry for them at the student level. We've looked at similar issues with diversity issues in professional orchestras and talked about what they think some of the issues are there. And then we've been really trying to kind of diversify the repertoire. So, like a lot of schools, we do a department-wide concert every December that is centered around seasonal music. And, you know, rather than kind of choosing the typical holiday fair this year, I went to our Latinx students and just asked them, hey, what are the seasonal songs that you and your families listen to at home? And a few of them made playlists for me. It was really interesting to listen to all these carols. I found one that I really liked called Los Peses in Rio. I happened to find a Mariachi arrangement of it by a group called Mariachi Arena Los Angeles. And so then I transcribed that for the orchestra to play. The students and I did a piece of music by a Black woman composer named Florence Price a few months ago. Florence Price was the first woman of color to have her music played by the Chicago Symphony. And interestingly enough, there was a Chicago Public Elementary School named for Florence Price that was closed several years ago in the very large round of Chicago Public School closings. So it had all these ties to current social justice issues. And so with diversifying the class material, I'm at the very beginning, but we're really trying, you know, and even in even in my guitar classes, you know, concepts that I used to teach via the Rolling Stones, can I teach that same concept through this XXXtentacion song that is like aesthetically worthwhile? You know, I used to teach the bass line to this Pink Floyd song, but instead I'm going to I'm going to teach the bass line to this MC Light song. It's a it's a slow journey for us. And I think that music teachers have a lot of ground to make up in this realm. But those are some of the things we're doing and we're really trying.
CM: For sure. And I think that any effort that's being made to act on these changes is worthwhile. And obviously, any star is a good one. But of course, music has some specific barriers, as it's often the bottom of the food chain when it comes to school funding and cuts. So in Ohio, we have a really archaic way of funding school programs. If voters don't support specific levies, which means increasing or keeping their taxes high. Basically, all after school programs, including music programs are shut down. This used to be really nerve wracking to our family, because one, I mean, it's distinguishing your whole program, you lose years of practice and training from anywhere from, you know, jazz bands to show choirs, whatever it might be, and it's not a prime position to be in. So how do you convince the local community that what you're doing is worthwhile and deserves funding and deserves attention?
TF: Though we want our students to strive for intrinsic satisfaction rather than external rewards, I do think a lot of music teachers have to justify their existence through some kinds of external accolades. Now, that could mean, you know, that could mean getting the highest rating at the state assessment. It could mean, you know, having playing every ribbon cutting in your town and getting a bunch of photos in the paper for it. It could mean being willing to send musicians into the community to play at a local homeless shelter at the local nursing homes, doing some things that have some PR sizzle, track the attention of the community that drive people to come to your performances. I think that is a piece of what we do. And really, I think most teachers are in a position now that they're always kind of starting what they're doing. And, you know, we could argue about the pluses or minuses of that, but I think that's just where we are. And then beyond that, you know, I think it's really making sure that every kid feels connected to it, you know, that every kid feels like they're having an experience, right? They're having an experience every day where they feel loved and cared for, and that they're learning and growing about, you know, things in which they want to learn and grow, and that they feel like they're in a supportive space where others are looking out for that. And, you know, I think that's the, it sounds corny, but that's the best advertisement for your program that you can possibly have.
CM: I hope you're enjoying the podcast thus far. I sincerely appreciate you listening in. And if you enjoy the work, please head over to humanrestorationproject.org to find our free resources and wealth of writings. And then, if you think we should keep going, take a gander at our Patreon page. For a dollar a month, you'll receive a professional, print-ready electronic magazine of our work every two months. But as always, all of that work is available free online. Specifically, I'd like to encourage you to check out our one-page PD on creation. It's a simple guide to the benefits of putting student work on display and how you create a culture of learning in your physical space. Check it out.
Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox: I came to Uganda because I wanted to experience something different in education. I also came for the adventure of Uganda. So I'm working here as the assistant principal. I kind of like fell into that role as well. I came as a grade five teacher and the school I thought needed a little bit of some change to do something different. And so I just stepped into the position to hopefully bring about some of that change.
CM: This is Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox, who has taught in Taiwan, Washington DC, Cambodia, currently in Uganda, and soon Kenya. We talk about Ryan's purpose and goals in education.
RHW: I'm trying to, I guess, design experiences that would spark learning. I'm trying to get away from experiences that are planned and instead look at experiences that are designed. I think the difference is that when you plan something, you have a clear goal in mind and you already know the outcome of what's going to happen. And when you design something, you kind of just have a framework for it, some ideas behind it, and then the design takes life for itself. So we're looking at designing experiences that could take life with the students and allow them to then become co-creators, co-designers in those experiences and really to spark learning. I think too often we also plan for learning with questions that we as teachers already know the answers to, and I'd rather us look at bigger questions that we don't know the answers to that we can explore alongside our students.
CM: That terminology that you're using is really powerful and I really love the way that you've worded that. Could you talk about if it's possible to design learning experiences this way everywhere? I think everything is possible. It only is impossible if we stop trying. And so no matter where we are, I think we need to stick to what our real beliefs are about learning and about education. And yes, I would agree that in some areas it is more difficult, but I think it's just more of a challenge for us to then convince other people to come alongside us to really solve for themselves the question of what is learning and what do we believe about learning. Too often we kind of gloss over that and we think more about what is school, what is education, what are we supposed to be doing here, what's the objective that we're learning, and we forget just what is that core understanding of learning. And so when we start having other people question that, I think we can help create more change and bring them alongside us. But I would, yeah, I would definitely say that it's only impossible if you stop trying.
CM: And how do you go about training staff then to meet those design goals?
RHW: What I see my role as being is to design experiences that spark learning for everyone, that spark learning for our adult learners as well. And so I kind of see it as my role to provide provocations for people to think about, to help them reconsider what education is, what school is for them. And I think eventually with enough dialogue and discussion we can find some common ground, and with that common ground we can build from there. I think we're all here for the same love of learning. The parents bring their children here for that reason. The students come here for that reason. The teachers come here. It's just we have to find that common space where we can talk about it together. And I think if we ask enough questions and we provide enough provocations to get people really thinking about what their beliefs are, we can then uncover those core beliefs that connect us.
CM: I really like that idea of designing learning experiences for the staff. What does that look like in practice?
RHW: So we usually start in the beginning of the year with a large provocation that will kind of set the pace or the tone for the learning that we're hoping to explore together that year. For example, one year we were looking at inquiry. And so we bought a book for all the teachers, Kath Murdock's book, The Power of Inquiry, and we provided that to everyone as kind of the provocation. And then from there we give back all of our professional learning times kind of to the teachers. Once the provocation is in place, once we're having those similar conversations, once we have those connections, then some teachers want to have, say, a chapter study with that book. And so they'll set up a chapter study club. Other teachers might want to go on do an online learning session for professional development. And so we've had teachers do that together. We do what we call personal learning journeys. And so with kind of this vision in place, then teachers select what they want to learn about and they use their, it's Wednesdays is our time, they use their Wednesday time to follow their professional learning journey. Within that, we sprinkle in some times for what we call choice workshops and R&D labs. And so that's kind of just a chance for us to kind of open our classroom doors to allow our teachers to become leaders in learning as well. And so in a choice workshop, the teachers share some of the learning they've been doing in their personal learning journeys or maybe some strategies they've been using in the classroom. It's kind of like an ed camp unconference idea. And then in R&D labs, they actually bring out the things that they're doing in the classroom and we try it out together. So the music teacher brought out the Legos and had us compose our own song and then play it based on the pattern that the Legos were creating in an arrangement. So it's different things like that, but we really, we design learning together and we're trying to model that for our teachers as much as we want them to model that for their students. So we provide provocations, we provide a common vision, and then we kind of just give the learning back to them and we walk alongside them learning together.
CM: You know, individualized PD and using progressive ideas for training staff is a really cool idea and I wish that that would catch on that adults are learners too. They should be treated in the exact same way that we would expect for students, but there's still a lot of adversity toward these ideas. How would you encourage teachers who feel disparaged in their local area to enact these ideas within their school district?
RHW: I think you have a lot of control or design and creativity within your classroom. Well, when I've thought about switching schools and looking for another job, if I can't find a school that's going to let me be who I am in a leadership position, I'd rather be in the classroom because I can lead change in my classroom and I don't need a lot of permission to do that. As long as I'm, you know, following the rules, then I have a lot of design and creativity there. So I'd say that teachers in the classroom should kind of embrace that and look at, you know, what do they believe about learning in their classroom and how can they design their classroom to support their beliefs and hopefully do that with their children as well with the students. What are the barriers that are provided by our classroom and what would better support our learning? How can we design our space? And I think considering space beyond just the physical space.
CM: To change the subject here slightly, I want to focus in on your experience specifically as an international educator. It seems like there's a lot of misconceptions surrounding education in different parts of the world. Could you talk a little more on this?
RHW: There's a lot of misconceptions about what education is like in Africa. I think some of them are based on, you know, what the media tends to share about what life in Africa might be like in classifying an entire continent as a country. I think it's the same thing, you know, thinking about Taiwan and Asia, that a lot of those areas get lumped together. I think the biggest misconception is what people believe about how different cultures value learning. And I don't think that there is a difference in how cultures value learning. Everyone thinks learning is important. How they approach learning is different. And a lot of that goes back to their culture. I think even how they learn language. In Taiwan, the script is, you know, character-based script. And how you learn to read that script is a very different process. The skill of learning how to learn in that language is a different process than learning, say, English. And so they approach learning differently in Taiwan. But I don't think it's a difference in how they value learning.
CM: So how do you go about navigating these different systems of education?
RHW: Yeah, I think there's a lot of barriers to education that are put up by the systems and structures that we have to work within. And learning how to navigate that as a student, as a teacher, and as a parent, I think is what really puts that block to learning for a lot of our students. If you just, I mean, when I moved to Taiwan, I was an immigrant and I didn't understand how the systems and structures worked there. And so I made a lot of mistakes and I didn't know who to talk to and how to go about it. You can imagine a parent who's moved there with a child wouldn't know how to advocate for their child. And the child themselves wouldn't know how to advocate because you don't understand how that system works. So unfortunately, I think the barriers that we create in education, we create by the systems and structures that we put in place and by not helping to educate everybody who's a part of that learning community about how it works.
CM: It's interesting to note the outside structure statement that Ryan makes here. It's basically the same thing that Pam Moran said. We're creating our own problems by just doing what's always been done. The more layers that we put up that impact a student's learning for no reason outside of that's the way that we do things, the worst learning outcomes are going to be all around. It's not just bad for students. I mean, they're the ones being told to obey rules and regulations or learn a certain way that's counterintuitive to them, but it's also bad for teachers. We are expected to follow these rules and teach in a certain way or else face reprimand. And if we push back against that system in our own way, that's usually quite stressful and it hurts our own social, emotional wellbeing. It's worth contemplating for all of us on what outside structures we are in control of and as a school, how we can work together to convince all stakeholders that it's no longer worth keeping those things around. These aren't always big things. They're things like bathroom passes, handbook sign outs, late penalties, how we assign homework if at all, how we grade, three strike rules, dress codes, essentially a lot of the things that we did when we were in school that might not be the best way of doing things. How does navigating these different systems of education tie in with the difficulties you have adapting then to the culture of these different places as you're moving around from place to place?
RHW: Yeah, I think we do have a lot of cultural misunderstandings because of the diversity, especially here in Uganda. We have a very diverse school and so a lot of our parents are from different cultures that value and believe in different things. And like I said, I think we're, we all value learning, but it's how we approach learning and what learning, what parts of learning we think are most valuable for our children. I think that the best way we can navigate that is just by listening more. I don't think we take enough time to hear out people and what their why is. We just assume, well, that parent doesn't know what they're doing because they've chosen to say no to this for their child or they want this for their child instead. We've not asked them why, we've not asked them what belief is behind that, how we could help support them. I think it's just really a matter of making those personal connections so that kind of the cultural divide falls away.
CM: What hopes do you have surrounding the future of school design and the learners within them?
RHW: I think there's a little bit of both. I think there's a lot of hope out there in the world as different schools are trying different things and are sharing new ideas. I think the power of the internet and our ability to communicate across cultures and beyond countries is going to be amazing. I think that's where we'll really see a learning revolution start to take place. I think unfortunately some governments are maybe putting a little too much control on education and on learning and maybe not consulting the learners themselves that are making decisions mandated on test scores. But I don't think that that's going to be able to survive as other schools develop further as role models for the rest of the world. I really hope that we look at school and we see how little it's changed and start thinking about how much it needs to change and how it should be reflective of the modern experience that people are having in the world today and that we really need to have responsive learning environments that support that kind of experience that we want our children to be prepared for.
CM: And finally, one last question. How does international education tie in with both the interconnectedness of learning as you're describing, but also the dark history that surrounds colonialism? I mean, most of the world has a Eurocentric education system, including its curriculum. What does it mean to be a teacher from the West in this environment?
RHW: I think unfortunately the Western culture still dominates in education. I think that we in international schools have this amazing experience to learn from the local cultures and to see how education is working for them, but also look at it worldwide. Where is education not working and why isn't it working and what can we learn from that? Some of the disconnect that our parents have here are Ugandan parents. We have a lot of different cultures here, but the Ugandan parents grew up obviously in Uganda and the Ugandan school system. They maybe don't understand how school is changing and what it could look like. And so for them, the experience of their children being in an international school is a very large departure from their own schooling experience. And so just trying to help educate them of what we're trying to do and more importantly why we're trying to do it has been really key. So we've been taking some of our ideas into the wider community through what we call an ISU lecture series. ISU is the name of our school, the International School of Uganda. And so we've kind of been taking it out into town, offering opportunities for parents, not just from our school, but from any school to come kind of learn with us about what our hopes are for the future of school and the future of designing schools. And through doing that, we've had different professionals join us. And there was this one man, one of them, he was just amazing. He was a Ugandan banker and he kind of stopped us in the middle of it and told us that what we were talking about is exactly what he thinks Uganda needs. So often he gets recent college graduates that can use Excel spreadsheets and they know all the formulas and they're great accountants, but they're not able to help him innovate and create a better bank and a better banking experience because they haven't learned the skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking. They've just been taught how to calculate and answer questions. And so he was really supportive of the school system. We were trying to think about designing and design in partnership with Uganda because it's important to have everyone on board and really understanding why you're doing what you're doing. And then I think you can bridge those divides between the experiences we've had, even myself growing up and our parents have had growing up and what school could be.
CM: And last on our lineup are Natalia Parker and Tasha Woods. Natalia and Tosha started the Discovery Lab in Ellensburg, Washington, which is a micro school, a small community of learners learning together. Tosha helped start the school and Natalia is continuing to build the program. Here's Natalia.
Natalia Parker: My background was in psychology and child development. So that was always a huge interest for me, but I was definitely more interested in the birth to five population in my college work. When we had kids, we had a five year old kiddo and we sent him to kindergarten and I was always very pro public school. My parents were teachers. My dad was a superintendent. But we started that year and I spent a lot of time with him in the classroom and just really, really thought lots of things that didn't sit well with me, like the things that I'm seeing in kindergarten are not developmentally appropriate for the age of being expected to sit in chairs and do seat work for large amounts of time. Our kiddo had his own kind of stuff going on, but he was basically chewing a hole in his lip. He was so stressed out, kind of trying to manage and keep it together all day at school. And so we kept trying to go back in and work with the school and say, how's he doing here? How can we support you? How can we support him? And we just really kept getting the answer that he's fine. Everything's fine. There's no need to worry about it. And so I'm a researcher. I like to learn and I started reading and digging into it. And the more I read, the more I looked at what we know about what works for kids when they're learning and how the models of education have shifted over time, the more convinced I became that we needed to be doing things very, very differently for kids.
CM: And Tosha had a fairly similar experience.
Tosha Woods: I come from a long line of educators. I was a secondary teacher. And when my, I have four children and so when my oldest child started public school, it felt like a disconnect when I walked through the hallways and through the doors. All of a sudden I didn't feel a part of his life. And I was seeing what I would have said, not best teaching practices in the classroom. And if every conversation I tried to enter into with the staff and administration, it was difficult. It was difficult to feel that I was heard or included. I'm friends with Natalia. And so at first it was like, I was ashamed of it though. I didn't want to speak about Outlaw because it must have just been my personal problem, my personal child. And then when I just became so frustrated and I started sharing my feelings with Natalia and she started sharing the same thing, then it became like, okay, we see a problem. We recognize it. We should be solving this.
CM: This is really fascinating. And I have a few nuts and bolts questions to figure out what the Discovery Lab is. First off, what is the current status of the Discovery Lab?
NP: This year we are operating and we have 25 kids. We have two classrooms. We have a K2 classroom and a 35th grade classroom. So this was our first year separating the kiddos into two separate learning spaces. It's one huge, open, flexible classroom, but they're in two separate learning groups.
CM: And what space are you working in?
NP: We are in a brick building downtown across from a skate park. And we actually are lucky we have an outside play area as well. We've been in lots of locations because we have not had a lot of money to pay rent, if any money at all. And so we've tried different things to find a location that works. We got really lucky with this location because my father-in-law decided to buy the building and he decided to let us use it rent-free for a couple of years, partly because he's getting so excited about this model of school as we're moving into our seventh year, or having more community members get on board and be supportive.
TW: I think the space, though, was one of the first obstacles that we had, right? We were driving and trying to sort things out. And then, like our first space, we had to convince people because we were actually behind a pub. We had like the back room and the front room to the pub. So that was fun to explain to everyone that, no, this is actually a legitimate school experience, a learning experience. And then we partnered with public school spaces and then you guys eventually partnered with a religious space. It's always been trying to find a safe environment where learners could grow.
CM: Is it a homeschooling program? Is it connected to the public school? Like, how is your school classified?
NP: We started out with a half-day program and our kids would go to public school for a half-day and then they would enroll as homeschoolers for the other half of the day and come to us. And then last year we got to the point where we had enough families saying this back and forth between public school is not working for us. We want kids with you all day. So we were finally able to barely financially scale it to a place where we could offer four days a week from nine to three. Kids still enrolled with the district as homeschoolers, but they came to Discovery Lab full-time. This year we did go through an application process with the state and receive approval as a private school. So our board is trying to decide right now if we'll move forward operating as a private school or if we'll remain in the capacity that we're in for the following year.
CM: Yeah, God, I can't even imagine how complex and difficult that hull is to operate. I recently applied for a supplemental teaching license and it took literally hours of phone calls just to figure out how to make that happen. So designing your own school from the ground up has to be exhausting.
TW: It was at the beginning. I think we were just really frustrated. And then every time an offshore kind of like, well, we have to solve this one too. Because when we were reviewing the questions, going back over all of those decision points that we had to make, there were a lot of times where it was like, this is the end. Like we can't, how are we going to solve this? And then something would come along and it would help us. But when we first started, we weren't, we couldn't figure out which government agency would oversee it. And so we tried to meet the requirements of all of them because everyone was saying, no, no, no, there's no laws that are covering you. Like, well, there should be. And so we tried to meet everyone's expectations.
CM: I noticed as well that your tuition as far as private and homeschooling programs go is relatively low.
NP: Our tuition going into next year will be $450 per student per month. The median income in Ellensburg is about $33,000 a year. So this is not a wealthy community. And then this has always been, I would say our greatest obstacle is we want kids here if they want to be here and their parents want them here. But we don't have other funding sources besides a few fundraisers that are very hardworking Discovery Lab parents put on every year. We are very close to a sustainable budget. We're very close to a sustainable budget next year. And we're looking at adding things like after school programs, which was something we've had in the past, but not the last couple of years to help fill that gap. But that being said, our teachers do not make a salary that is on par with a public school teacher. What has worked well for us is that we have teachers teaching in the program who have kids who can also attend the program and they so value this type of education and want it for their kids that they're willing to come in the door because of that. And then I think often once they get here, the autonomy and support that they have from each other and just getting to really design a learning experience that they can get behind makes them more and more invested and kind of able to work with the salary difference.
CM: What has been surprising about working throughout this program?
TW: The thing that surprised me the most about this process is that I imagine that we would have so much control over it, but very quickly it became a community. And so it wasn't that Natalia or I had control over it. It really became a community of parents and children and teachers. And so a lot of philosophy was discussed and a lot of pedagogy was discussed. We both from education, so we knew John Dewey. I think the other ones that we, other people we read, Alfie Pohn was one that we really got excited about. We're looking at Khan Lab School or Khan Lab School hadn't started yet. We're looking at Khan Academy. And just really trying to be specific in what I would now call a profile of a learner. I didn't know that back then. And what did we want our learners to experience, feel like, and look like? And we wrote down that list of values.
NP: And I think Tosha's right. I think like the whole program, the philosophy has evolved over time. When we started, you could go online and take on project-based learning and find a few resources. And now it's exploded. The amount of people talking about different models of learning and thinking about kids and how to best support them. I would say my biggest driver from the beginning was school should be a place that's relationship-based. We should know our kids. We should know who they are, what drives them. And we should seek to engage them through the use of that relationship rather than carrots and sticks and grades. So that was a huge driver for me. I would say that Tasha and I complimented each other, but also had some different... What would you say was the biggest driver?
TW: Natalia is very strong in seeing through the relationship base and making sure that the learner is seen as human and the educator is seen as human and making sure the parent was also involved in that process. And then I also carry that base, but we need the data and we need to work with the public schools because we are the K-12 program. So these kids are going to have to transition into a more traditional model. And we need to make sure that they're prepared, their families are prepared and that we are serving them. And so we carried both those things easily and it was a great balancing agent for us.
NP: As we've come into this year, we have a phenomenal K-2 teacher that's been with us for a couple years, a phenomenal first grade teacher. And I feel like the program has really started to hit its stride. And I would say the overarching philosophy is the classroom needs project-based learning, but we really do have a focus on a humanistic environment where we build relationships and teach kids how to support each other and work together. But we certainly do also pull in elements of direct instruction and things like that to help kids meet concepts. And we're focusing on the individual pathway of every learner. So kids are moving at their own pace regardless of their grade level. So those are all kinds of things that sort of drive what we do when we think about how to set ourselves up for success with the year with our curriculum.
CM: Right, right. It makes a lot of sense that developing this community is going to be a powerful tool. Could you describe what it looks like for a particular student at your school? Like what makes this endeavor worth it for you?
TW: So I had my four children in public school during that time. This year, my second son, a fourth grader, public school was not working out so great for him. He was exhibiting stress and he was just sort of shutting down. He wasn't engaged and he was forming an opinion about what learning is that didn't really equate with what my feeling was or what I wanted him to walk away with. And so in January, I reached out to Natalia and said, hey, do you have faith in your third through fifth grade cohort that Finn might be able to join my second child? And she said yes. And so we made that transition mid-year in January, had him move from his public school, fourth grade classroom into this group. And the effect was immediate. It was more profound than I thought it would be. Within two days, like what had been strong behavior at home when he was at public school, he would come home from public school just exhausted and frayed and mentally not there. And so there was a lot of, he would yell. There was a lot of yelling and he never wanted to go to school in the morning. And in two days being at Discovery Lab, everything calmed down. It was like he had found his pace. When I was picking him up after school, it wasn't me trying to pry information out of him. What did you do in school today? He was offering up, I wonder about this. And I wonder about space project. I wonder about Mars. I wonder about NASA. He was interested and there were provoking questions that he felt like he could grapple with and that his voice mattered. I of course believe in the philosophy of Discovery Lab. I've seen this happen to other children, but even when I was in my own space with my own child, I was surprised what a profound effect it did have on him.
CM: And for those who are frustrated with what's going on, do you think it's possible for other parents or educators to do what you've done?
NP: I think it's completely possible. Lots of people are doing this in some in some form. It seems like around our country when we look back and look at the challenges we've gone through to get here. And I always joke with my kids because they always, they always ask me, why are you putting so much time into that? When two of my kids, one's a, they're both middle schoolers now, so they, they're not here. And it really grew into itself as they got too old for it. And they always ask, mom, you're working on, on that all the time. And I'm like, it's my project. It's my project based learning. I have, you know, we've gone through the same process that we want you guys to do. I found something I'm super passionate about and I just, I can't stop iterating it and, and trying to make it what it's possible becoming. With that being said, I think that at this moment in time, we know so much more about how we can tell someone to implement this in a more direct and easy fashion. We learned a lot of things just by fumbling around and trying to figure it out. That would be not as difficult for people now. So yes, I think it's completely possible and pretty empowering and necessary. As Tosha said, we both work in lots of different capacities to try to push change in our local schools. And I do think it's happening, but it's low. And, and we've seen this be a powerful agent of change in our communities, not just for the kids that show up at Discovery Lab, but showing people that there's another way and another model and having them go back and ask for that in their classrooms.
TW: Yeah, I agree with Natalia. I believe in this so passionately that I stepped down from Discovery Lab and I ran for a local school board because I believe that this is possible in all classrooms and for all students. And I think it's good for all educators and all students. It's not just a subset of students that will benefit from this. And I also don't think that the onus should be on the parents or caregivers. They have to walk away from the public school system. I think the public school system should be providing this, should be doing this. So I get the opportunity to speak about that and kind of advocate for that on a local school board. And then I also, in my professional life, I do professional development. So I get to travel around the nation and visit with schools and classroom educators. And then there are pockets of educators that are moving more to this model is completely possible. I think that parents need to speak up or caregivers need to talk a little bit more about the experience. I felt ashamed to speak about it at first because I thought it was just me, just my family. And then being a public school teacher, I was like, well, I really can't say this, but I was really struggling with it and I could see my kids struggling with it. And so once I started talking to Natalia and then we started talking to other parents, then we had a community of learners. Then we were hearing from other parents saying we want to solve the problem too. So I think that there are many of us out there.
CM: I know that some people listening might be bothered by the fact that we're moving away from a public school, but I do think that there's a space that if someone is dissatisfied with what they're doing right now, that they can make these opportunities. And you all are just trying to create something that's fairly equitable. What advice do you have for parents that are going through this, I guess, cognitive dissonance between public education and doing what they know is best for their own children?
NP: I think the first thing I would tell people is that they have concerns to not dismiss them. Listen to yourself. If you have a feeling that your kids coming home at the end of the day and they're really not okay, don't just say, well, I went to school, I was fine, that's childhood. Pay attention and think critically about your kids' experience and ask them questions and listen to them. So I think that's the first part is just, I think Tosha and I both had to fight through that feeling of maybe it's just my kid, maybe it's just me, and really get to the place of honoring that voice that's saying, no, I think we could be doing things in a much healthier way for our kids in our schools. So starting with that, and then the next piece I would say is find a like-minded community. Talk about how you feel and find a few other people who feel the same way. I can't even tell you in my role at Discovery Lab how many parents will contact me just to talk to me and say, my kid's having a hard time. What do you think about this? Even if they're not in a position to move their kids or that's not what they want to do, they just need to reach out and talk to someone and have their experience validated. And there are lots and lots of people, lots of people who want to see different things for their kids.
TW: Once you're there, once you realize that it's okay to speak out loud and you've spoken to fellow parents, speak to your local school board, speak to your administrators. I mean, if you don't feel like you have the right words to use, like maybe you're not an educator, maybe you don't have the vocabulary, your child deserves more than just fine. Like they're just fine today. It's fine at school. Your child deserves more. And usually the school districts want parents to come in there and speak. It doesn't mean that everything's going to change quickly, but if we can start speaking to each other and start exploring the resources that are out there or the potential other possibilities out there, great things can happen.
NP: Yes. And the last thing I would add to that is start somewhere even if it's small. Even if you don't want to open a micro school or you don't want to put a whole bunch of energy into one kind of thing, if you really think your kiddo needs something different, there are so many ways to do it. My middle schooler next year is going to take orchestra and woodworking at the middle school. And then he's going to walk over to the story lab and do some ed tech programs and work with a tutor for a couple hours a day. And then he has an internship working at the bike shop because he loves riding bikes and building bikes. And he's very interested in turning that into a career pathway. So we don't have a micro school. We don't have any kind of alternative program for middle schoolers here, but we're going to cobble together an alternative and make the best of it that we can. So I think just remembering that sometimes you do have more choices than you think you do. It just requires thinking outside of the box and being creative. And there are ways to make things different for your kids, even if it's not sitting right there in front of you in the form of another school.
TW: The thing that has grown the most with me out of this is that I used to sit back and say, oh, well, it's the system or it's this part of the system or public education has to do this. And really, I think there is not the system. We are the system. Every adult who's making this choice, impacting that is us. And so we're not constrained as much as we think that we are. If we just take that first tiny step of, well, I'm going to try this different, it's usually, OK, you learn from it. Even if we fall flat on our face sometimes, we still learn from it. We got back up and tried something different.
CM: I speak about this a lot on the podcast, but I think it's always worth reiterating. Every educator I speak with on progressive education is hopeful about the future. And the particular thing they mention is how the Internet brings us all together. Because of social media and the platform we have, we can actually connect together, stakeholders within and outside schools to build a human centered education. It's so exciting to know that you have backup, that there's a movement here of educators who understand how important designing learning is and why we need to break down barriers between the teacher centric model that's existed for so long. The possibilities of learning that will open are unimaginable. And as Pam Moran said, it's possible that we'll develop learning systems unlike anything we've ever seen before. We mustn't get bogged down in the oppressive nature of school policy, things that have been done in the same way for so long that we might start to question if it's possible to make change. As every guest we've had on has shown, it's possible to make those changes. Sometimes it's within the public school system and sometimes we have to take things into our own hands. As long as we continue to make partnerships and make outreach to public schools and try to make progressive education happen for all learners, we have to ensure that everyone benefits from our actions, I think we're doing the right thing. It's up for all of us to restore humanity within our communities and broadcast this message to as many people as possible. I believe almost every educator has student learning in their hearts. They may just need some prodding to reinvigorate that passion for learning, that discovery of progressive ideals to help design learning experiences that we're talking about here. Oppressive systems tend to oppress those who dwell within it and those of us who are pushing for change have the awesome opportunity to reignite radical change. Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, social media, or anywhere that you see fit. I mention iTunes specifically because the more ratings we have there, the higher we rank on the education podcast list and the more listeners we have, the better we're going to do. We can't do this without you and I'm humbled by the opportunity to help broadcast this message to as many people as we possibly can. We've grown so much our average unique podcast listener number has jumped from maybe two to three hundred an episode to over two thousand in the last year and our website traffic is up ten thousand percent in the last three months and our Patreon supporters continue to climb. I can't wait to share all the things that Nick and I are brainstorming in addition to what we're already offering. So let's push forward together and restore humanity.