Category Archives: Creativity

What Do You Need to Re-Think?

I recently attended an annual summit that focuses on stories and storytellers. The people at Business Innovation Factory believe that “business model innovation is on the critical path to transforming important social systems including education, health care, and government. Tweaking our existing models and systems won’t work. We need to imagine, prototype, and test new models and systems in the real world.”

School days have been structured in the same way for decades – the bell rings and school begins. Another bell rings and you are tardy. Another bell signals lunch. A final bell ends the day. Yet, if you walked into Amana Academy, you would see the shifts that have been made to regular school day routines or structures that invite innovation and imagination.  One of these routines is based on establishing traditions and culture.

Community Meetings are a common structure in Expeditionary Learning Schools that help to build a culture of pride, success and celebration in both academics and character. Most Expeditionary learning Schools, like Amana Academy, have some form of effective, regular school-wide gathering with a predictable, routine structure. Anyone whose business deals with sales understands the concept of a routine meeting– employees meet to review the sales quota, establish goals based on the projected growth of the department or company, and throw in a chant to end the meeting. Then everyone disperses to their office or cubicle and gets to work, oftentimes, unhappily. In many ways, CREW mirrors what happens in businesses around the nation.  So, how is CREW different? CREW is a structure that has been a part of Amana since its inception. CREW is where students gather in homerooms or small groups to begin their day with discussion, activities or initiatives, and goal setting. It’s precisely the predictability of the structure that allows the school to create a safe environment where students feel free to risk, fail, and try again.

The leadership of the school met to determine what needed to be “re-imagined” in the process to promote the culture of the school consistently across all grades and the suggestion was for CREW to happen in every classroom at the exact same time. Shut down the entire school shut for CREW. This is a deliberate shift would signal the importance of the structure and the value we have as a school for building character along with academics. This year, we began that shift which now signals that everyone should pay attention because something amazing happens in CREW – relationships are formed.  Character is built as students learn explicitly what it looks like to demonstrate empathy to each other, how to question, how to listen, and how to express themselves. Second, the building of relationship gives CREW purpose and allows an environment of success and failure to thrive. This tweak is in the structure that deliberately invites students to talk about what went wrong and share their stories. Knowing what’s not working is half the battle to achieving what works.

CREW culminates weekly with a campus-wide community meeting called Community Circle. Grade levels or CREWS rotate presenting to other students based on a determined set of value statements that Expeditionary Learning calls design principles. Students learn storytelling skills as they draft presentations and skits based on their learning and present to authentic audiences composed of peers, parents, and teachers.  This structure and process is not without failure either. Microphones are often not working. Students forget their lines, sometimes caught up in the silliness of the moment or just too shy to continue. Yet, the magic of Community Circle is always there despite, or maybe because of, the failures.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review emphasized the importance of storytelling in business.  Robert McKee writes, “A great CEO is someone who has come to terms with his or her own mortality and, as a result, has compassion for others. This compassion is expressed in stories.” The article goes on to explain why becoming a good storyteller is important to the future of a company – something BIF advocates through its annual storytelling summit.

At Expeditionary Learning Schools like Amana Academy, rethinking the structure of the school day invites students to re-imagine and investigate new models of thinking, and fosters curiosity.  Through structures like CREW and community meetings, students are given dedicated time to develop their storytelling abilities through public speaking.  These routines have little to do with direct instruction or student achievement on the surface, yet they build the skills in students that talent management executives look for in candidates – critical thinking, risk taking, and public speaking. Sounds like CEO material in the making, doesn’t it?

So, what are your structures and processes? Your routines? How are you empowering your people to tell their stories and what do you need to re-imagine or re-think?


Creating Innovators

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research lately on creativity and critical thinking. If you’re an educator, you’ve probably spent (or are spending) a lot of time and resources learning the “shifts” toward the Common Core standards, deeper learning, and applied learning strategies. In the sea of great resources, one stands out that, to me, begins to go deeper into how to teach creativity and critical thinking. Written by Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, Creating Innovators gives real-life models of what an innovator is and dares to challenge those of us in education to think differently about how we teach creative and critical-thinking skills.

Tonight’s chat is based around some of the questions that the book raises:

1. What motivates the digital generation?

2. What skills are you teaching students that build critical thinking and creativity?

3. How are you assessing students skills? Do students have time in class to work on application?

4. If you could “re-imagine” your school, what would it look like? 

Transcript for the chat posted here.

Dream Big…Then Do It!


You’ve no doubt heard of TED and probably TEDx, but many people are not aware that TED also hosts TEDxYouthDay. TEDxYouthDay is a series of worldwide TEDx events that coincide with Universal Children’s Day in November. TEDxYouthDay events are designed to inspire, empower, and engage young people by igniting new ideas and giving the next generation of leaders an opportunity to speak and be heard.

This year’s theme was Dream Big…Then Do It, a theme played out at TEDxAmanaAcademy, the TEDxYouthDay event hosted by the school where I am the Elementary Grades Director and the brainchild of one of our talented, innovative teachers, Maria Annunziata. Maria’s idea was to connect the TEDxAmanaAcademy talks to the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles which are a foundation of Amana Academy. I was, frankly,  blown away and humbled by the amazing students whose passion for their topics came through with each presentation.

Parent volunteers helped to make the event happen, among them the talented Monique Russell-Messavussu of CLEAR Communication Solutions LLC. I asked Monique to reflect on her experience as an organizer, as a parent, and as a member of the Amana Academy community:

“I am so impressed at the success of this past Saturday’s TEDxAmanaAcademy event. It gave me great pride to see the young men and women come together to share their ideas and be supported by their parents, school, community and friends. The students came up with their creative ideas all by themselves, and were interested, and passionate in communicating them.

As a co-organizer over the past 8 weeks, it has been a joy watching the young men and women grow in their critical thinking thought processes as they developed their talks. They also grew in confidence while receiving honest feedback from their peers. The peer evaluations not only gave the presenters a chance to justify their positions, but it empowered the reviewers to identify, and constructively share areas of improvement.

At the beginning of this process, I was nervous about the short time frame we had to prepare, but working alongside such a dedicated and professional teacher as Ms. Maria Annunziata some of my fears were held at bay. Ms. Annunziata made herself available three times per week for 90 minutes to help students brainstorm, develop, and practice their talk. I especially enjoyed the activities before each Tedx Thursday, which I considered a mental gymnastic exercise that involved thinking about technology, or relating to the Expeditionary Learning design principles. For example, one activity involved having students gather in a circle where each individual would mime an object they could think of that related to technology. The person to the right of the mime would try to guess the answer, and then receive the object to develop their own. Students as young as first grade thought up things like fans, helmets, televisions and more. It got them thinking about the way technology has evolved, and prepared their big minds for even more creative work. Whoever said that creativity is being stifled would disagree in this environment. The level of engagement, and excitement blew me away.

When we selected the final speakers for the event, working with them was a joy. I loved pulling out what they had inside of them rather than providing them with answers, or clouding their thoughts with an adult, realistic point of view. I would often ask them why they thought of a certain topic, and I challenged them on their stance. I pushed them to think outside their limits—and what was most surprising was that they had answers—and ones they were confident in!

The day before the event, a bit of nervousness set in. I was concerned about the delivery of some talks since the practice time was limited. What I saw on the day of the event amazed me. I saw how literally overnight…having parents encourage repeated practices improved the delivery, and familiarity of their talks.

In retrospect, the lessons learned would be to get more parent support earlier in the process with research, brainstorming and definitely practice. In addition, developing a budget, and testing technological pieces ahead of time will make the next event even better. Because it was the first event, logistics and technology were a concern; however, I am happy to say that there were no major glitches or obstacles, and everything ran seamlessly. Throughout this process, I realized the importance of having a strong team, and committed volunteers.

Overall, the experience reminded me that no matter how young, students all have innate passions, and ideas really worth sharing.”

Videos of the students talks will post soon. In the meantime, check out the great pics on Flickr and be inspired!

Citizen Scholars – Expeditionary Learning National Conference 2012

I’m in Denver this week at the Expeditionary Learning National Conference. Expeditionary Learning (EL) is a national network of high-performing schools serving approximately 50,000 students nationwide and internationally. EL schools are exploratory, inquiry-based, experiential schools that utilize “design principles” for student engagement and rigorous academic achievement.

The theme for this year’s conference is Citizen Scholars. The keynote speaker yesterday was Steven Seidel, professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been working on the “Digital Museum of Student Work”  in collaboration with Expeditionary Learning. The Digital Museum of Student Work (DMSW) is an online, open resource of exemplary EL student work. To say the keynote was inspirational is an understatement.

“EL Principles model what is possible in learning and teaching,” said Seidel. He spoke of his use of EL student work archives in his graduate class last year for teacher educators and the exemplary work of EL students. He then charged the educators present with the following challenges:

  • How do you rekindle your own passion for learning?
  • Why are the educational principles I believe in, like the EL Design Principles, so marginalized in today’s education?
  • What could it mean to be a citizen scholar today as a young person or as an adult and why isn’t this the purpose of education?
  • Why isn’t “Getting Smart To Do Good” not written above every classroom’s door in every school?

Throughout his keynote, Dr. Seidel elaborated on these challenges while referring to the autobiography of famous American, Frederick Douglass. Dr. Seidel spoke of the level of risk-taking this American hero undertook to achieve his own education.  He spoke of Douglass’ spirit, his burning desire to learn, and his compassion to give back. He spoke of the inspiration we derive from heroes such as Douglass as children and as adults and he reminded us that ideas for inspiration can come from anywhere. He concluded his keynote by stating that imagination and creativity are keys to inspiration and to learning.

Dr. Seidel stated, “Inspiration and creativity are understudied.” As elements of the imagination and of learning, how are you sparking inspiration, creativity and imagination in your organization? In your school? In yourself? Are you innovating learning in your organization? In your school?

“Imagination is the only thing that will save us from ourselves.” Moises Kaufmann. Indeed.

For more information on EL schools, go to the El website at