March 5, 2021

Three Little Words

Back-to-school…

Three little words that I have dreaded since 1968. I remain haunted by the hideous nature of my own school experience. Each back-to-school commercial and increasingly premature retail display fills me with dread. As a parent, “Back-to-School Night,” was too often a torturous affair filled with the recitation of gum rules, awful presentations, and assorted violations of the Geneva Convention.

However, I look forward to going back to school tomorrow. This is my second year as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

The Willows is a lovely twenty-one year-old PK-8 progressive independent school filled with truly happy children and terrific educators who know each child. The school is filled with play, the arts, and inquiry. The kids crack me up and my colleagues are genuinely interested in collaboration. Their willingness to learn and try things differently creates a context in which I can do good work on behalf of the kids we serve. I am truly grateful for their generosity of spirit and hospitality. The school is a lovely place for kids to learn because it is a great place for teachers. This also results in virtually zero faculty turnover.

Happy & school need not be contradictory terms.

My responsibilities at The Willows include teacher mentoring, curriculum design, professional development, working with groups of kids, and organizing special events. Much of what I do consists of wandering into classrooms, asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” and then suggesting, “Why don’t you try this instead?”

On any given day my work might include recommending Australian fiction, integrating Romare Beardon into the curriculum, turning the kindergarten “bee unit” upside down, teaching math or programming to 2nd graders, brainstorming project ideas with teachers, participating in a learning lunch, or organizing a Superheroes of the Maker Movement event. I help out with the school’s extensive “making” opportunities and even enjoy meetings. One rewarding aspect of the job is when I excite a teacher about trying some nutty idea and then sell the administration on supporting that R&D. I adore being an advocate for teachers.

My calendar is plenty full and I do not need to work in a school on a regular basis. Few of my peers on the “circuit” do so. But, I love to teach, particularly to teach teachers, and I cherish having a canvas on which to paint my ideas for making schools more hospitable to the intentions of children. I am not willing to give up on schools because that’s where the kids are.

The Willows has viewed Constructing Modern Knowledge as a critical piece of their extensive professional learning portfolio. Each year, between 6 and 10 Willows educators participate in CMK. This builds community around shared experiences and brings cutting-edge ideas and expertise back to the school. Several young teachers who attended CMK for the first time this past July have been eager to seek my advice on everything from classroom decor to writing prompts to project ideas for the coming school year.

I am enormously grateful to the founding Head of The Willows Lisa Rosenstein for having the flexibility, vision, and sense of humor required to make me part of their team. As a keynote speaker, consultant, teacher educator, author, and clinician, I spend 1/3 – 1/2 of each year on the road. When I’m home, I rush back to The Willows. My travel provides diverse experience, an ability to identify patterns, and experience that I hope benefits our school.

A great part of working at The Willows is I get to be an educational leader, not computer boy. I am unconstrained by the edtech ghetto while getting to use technology the way I always have to amplify human potential and to provide learners with opportunities that would not exist without access to computation. I relish the chance to help fourth grade teachers create a 3D thematic tableau outside of their classroom window and prefer it to the trivia consuming too much of what is know currently as educational technology. That said, The Willows is a leader in the continuous use of constructive, creative, computationally-rich technology from PK -8.

Aside from the children I have the pleasure of hanging out with and the great colleagues I work with, the greatest joy associated with my job at The Willows is sharing an office with my friend, former student, and colleague Amy Dugré, Director of Technology. Amy is a spectacular educator, fine leader, and among the best practicing constructionists working in schools anywhere. I cherish her selflessness, friendship, and support.

Wherever or whatever you teach, here’s to a great new year! Please remember to do the right thing. If you won’t stand between kids and the madness, who will?


Note: You will find no greater advocate for public education than myself. Regrettably, the current political climate makes it impossible for a public school to demonstrate the sort of hiring flexibility that I have experienced at The Willows. What I learn each day, is shared with every school and educator I have the privilege of working with anywhere in the world.

One thought on “Three Little Words

  1. As I’ve mentioned before my best years in teaching were the 10 I spent at Brooklyn Friends and Columbia Prep in NYC in the 70s and 80s. I was given amazing freedom to be creative in my work with kids. You are fortunate to have such a school. I was hopeful in the early days of charters that they would be more like independent schools, but unfortunately too many have failed. But I still dream that the quality will improve once the leadership in those schools improves and the test mania slows to a crawl. I don’t have the same optimism for public schools especially those that are economically challenged.

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