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The Privilege of Learning, Rethinking Traditional Schooling

The Privilege of Learning, Rethinking Traditional Schooling

In 2009, I was fortunate enough to visit New Tech High School in Coppell, TX…a “New Tech Network” school centered on project based learning and authentic student-led experiences. Prior to that visit, everything that I understood about education involved teachers as the holders of information with students waiting to grasp onto every word. Within a few moments of walking through the halls of New Tech, I knew that I was experiencing something life-changing. It was as if the doors of learning were unlocked ever so slightly and I haven’t been the same educator since.

It was on that day that I first experienced what freedom to explore and learn meant. I saw kids, deeply draped in trust, collaborating, researching, discussing and even studying from all corners of the building. I saw a “grading system” that had zero numerical value but a life value far greater than a red pen could mark.

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I saw kids, excited about the “global awareness” project they were collaboratively creating…entranced by their ideas as well as the ongoing feedback of their peers…while also editing final videos for online submission to youtube.

I remember leaving New Tech full of excitement and wonder and I was eager to try implementing some of those ideas into my own math classroom. I started with changing the way that I taught by giving much less and asking much more. That simple change, while not easy, profoundly changed who I was as a teacher.

Over the last few years, I’ve been to many different schools and I have only felt such a life-changing jolt on two other occasions. One…after visiting Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the other…Anastasis Academy in Colorado. Like New Tech, both schools are inquiry driven and project based, with one (SLA) being a public magnet high school founded by a man with a transformative vision and The Franklin Institute. The second…a private school (Anastasis) formed because a pair of teachers wanted to create a “new paradigm in education”.

In both situations, the differences in belief and approach to learning versus traditional schooling were obvious from multiple views. Kids were empowered to think, dream, act and learn with many iterations of thought. Partnerships between students, teachers and parents were clearly evident. Students were trusted to be human and teachers were trusted to be their own curriculum writers instead of forced to teach from a district box-set of ideas. Both locations boasted students who spoke of the privilege that they felt to learn in such an authentic manner that their voices and ideas were not only heard but empowered to ignite their individual paths.

Each trip, while months apart, forced me to think about the possibilities for kids and the future leaders that they can become if we stopped living in the traditional sense of school and shifted our thinking to be truly focused on empowering kids to be architects of their own thoughts and lovers of the art of learning.

It should not be surprising to adults when students can articulate their own thoughts. We should not be shocked when a teenager makes some incredible scientific discovery or creates a work of art “beyond his/her years”.

When I am told, “…designed/created by a student”, I do not want to live in a world where my response is, “Are you serious?”….but instead… “of course”.

If we listen to our learners, our schools should be empowering…

  • Ideas
  • Voice
  • Passion
  • Activism
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Research
  • Cultural Cognizance
  • Invention
  • Learning

If we aren’t doing those things, why should we question when kids lack a spark or intent when approaching school? Why should we be concerned when attendance lacks while discipline referrals reach new peaks? Why should we wonder why parental support falters? Why question the social connectedness of teachers to ideas or opportunities for growth?

Why question what we haven’t established, implemented or supported…in the traditional sense?

Why have we created and accepted a system where authentic learning is a matter of privilege?

We all speak of educational change and/or reform but no such change is possible until we cut the leashes of traditional learning and redefine our purpose for school. The key to getting there is tucked in the dusty boxes that are currently holding the muted thoughts of our greatest assets.

Our Kids

What do they think about learning? What do they think about school? How would they change it?

What small change can you make in your classroom/school to empower “untraditional” growth?

What needs to happen to support more meaningful and authentic approaches to growth?

(Noticeably absent from the list above…Technology. We don’t need to empower technology. We need to empower our learners…who they are and who they can become. The technology should be accessible…supporting and empowering all of the characteristics listed and more)

Because Slavery Should Not Be Edtech Gamified #slavesimulation

my great grandfather, a product of slavery
my great grandfather, a product of slavery

It’s been four days now of complete and total commitment to bringing forth awareness about PBS affiliate, ThirteenNY‘s “game” on slaves escaping to freedom in which badges are awarded for risks along the way. This “game”, which received exceptional reviews AND AWARDS from teachers and media affiliates from all over the country, has been used in classrooms since at least 2012.

Reviews like… (as posted to their website and linked)

KOTAKU – They Made a Video Game About Slavery, And It’s Actually Good
“It’s not only an engaging video game, it’s a harrowing, illuminating look at the realities of life as an American slave…
I was struck by how effectively the game placed me in the shoes of an American slave. The precarious nature of my existence was readily apparent… 

USA TODAY – 4 out of 4 stars – Kids relive history with free role-playing game
“realistic” “brilliant” “ingenious” “fascinating” “a powerful game that all kids should experience”
The branching storylines, each tied to your possible decisions, are brilliant in their diversity and ingenious in how they weave together to create the fascinating story path of this game.

School Library Journal – “Media Mix: ‘Flight to Freedom’ for Black History Month”
The game is educational, fun, and will definitely hold the attention of students in grades 5 to 8.

Ground Control Parenting – “Mission U.S.: Helping Middle Schoolers Enjoy Learning American History”
A game to teach middle schoolers about slavery? Could be cringe-worthy; I had to try it. I enlisted my 7th grade son to play it with me, and off we went into the world of Lucy the slave. Two minutes in, we were hooked.

As an educator, parent and aunt of a student in this age range, I am disheartened that the consensus on learning for students in this age range is that it needs to be “gamified” and fun” to be interesting.

Engaging? Yes

Interesting? Yes

Fun? Not if “fun” means simulation and badging built on the premise of a horrific event such as slavery

How/Why Does This Happen?

The development of a series of games starts with hefty planning. The idea of learning history in an interactive format is a great one. It is. However, when choosing which acts of history to play, consideration should have been given as to which moments were appropriate and how to do them justice.

The slave mission was built on the idea that users could  “understand what a real slave felt” while walking around in Lucy’s shoes. Unfortunately this is also where the game failed because one cannot simulate the emotional scars of slavery. Read more about “why simulation should not be used” from the Anti-Defamation League in reference to the Holocaust.

No matter how “uncomfortable” one is while playing a game, it’s still absent of the worry of physical abuse, rape, mutilation or death. It’s still not the emotional scars of being “nothing” in the eyes of the people whose lifestyle you are in fact enabling.

So again…how does this happen? There’s research on the part of those with the idea, planning, more research and meetings with potential funding groups. Those funding groups typically make awareness known about what types of projects they are funding which often results in projects created to meet the needs of the money being issued. This game was groundbreaking in that no one else has successfully done it. Wait…it WAS done and did in fact result in a lawsuit being filed by parents in 1995.

At any rate, many people said “yes” to this game and not one thought that it was inappropriate including a group of historians who not only supported it but advised along the way…which begs the question…

While we know that our stories and narratives are absent from schools, was this the way to do it?

While I cannot and will not speak for the entire black community. As a teacher, technology specialist, daughter, mother and aunt…I say…NO

Fast forward to the launch of the game itself. Press releases are sent out. Contacts are made with potential high volume reviewers. Sometimes those reviews are pre-written and sometimes a person is asked to review. (I’ve been approached for many different apps to review and have declined)

Too many people should have and could have stopped this insanity and no one did. For that, I am still annoyed with the greater Edtech Community about.

Studying Slavery

I want my kids to examine primary documents, research, interview real people, watch revelations captured via film, discuss and maybe even do some writing to reflect and think. I want them to look at the wholistic aspect of slavery and not just on the part of slaves but on the slave owners too.

I also want them to examine their own history and the role that their family played. There are rich lessons that can be had if we stop assuming that all lessons need the glitz and glamour of animation, interactivity through technology and badging.

While I do believe in using games for learning, I do not believe that slavery is an appropriate place for it.

It’s too important of a topic to be minimized by “fun”.

Slave Simulation, An Edtech Game for Classrooms

Slave Simulation, An Edtech Game for Classrooms

Yesterday, I was shocked to open my email from Common Sense Media’s Graphite to find a recommendation and review for the game, Mission US: Flight to Freedom as a recommended piece of technology to “celebrate black history month and beyond” (It has since been removed).  Flight to Freedom is a role playing game in which users step into the character of Lucy, a 14 year old slave, as she attempts to run away to the north to escape slavery.

Flight to Freedom is a simulation of slavery meant to give students an interactive look into history. It features everything the “edtech” buzzword community loves…role playing, badges, student choice and reevaluation of failure. The problem here is that IT’S ABOUT SLAVERY…one of the darkest times in American history that STILL holds deep wounds…irresponsibly presented as a “too easy fix” on the part of the slaves themselves through decision making. Yes, Lucy…you’ll get a beating and it’s not because you are a slave who is owned by an evil slave owner…but because you chose the wrong path…thus, consequences.

The game is full of these moments. At one point, Lucy finds herself trying to find “the papers” proving that her “uncle” is free and in doing so encounters a random white man. She has a choice to tell him the truth that she’s trying to help her uncle or lie and stay quiet. It doesn’t take a genius to know that in those days, there was no good choice either way. Playing it safe, I chose to stay quiet. I was rewarded with…


Yes, he prefers “quiet negroes” and in case I needed it…there is sound…plenty of “authentic sound”.

Eventually Lucy is captured and carted off to be auctioned where we got to hear this description…”Niggress for $800″


I honestly can’t even give this atrocity of a poor decision a thought beyond…Why?

  • Why did the creators of this game find it necessary to create?
  • Why put children through “decision making” as a slave?
  • Why would any person think that slave simulation is a necessary component of curriculum?
  • Why did no one question this prior to now?
  • How does a game about slave simulation get funded even when a game similar to it resulted in a lawsuit by black parents?
  • Why and how did the black researchers participate in this? Do you really believe that this was the way to honor our people and the best way for children to learn about slavery, the underground railroad and the countless numbers of people who died while trying to become free? Let’s reflect on the fact that this is a tiny snapshot of history but one that certainly deserved more thought than this.

If you want to create a role playing game about history…fine…do it…but choose moments in history that are not about the rape, beating, degradation, mutilation and murder of a people. Do we really need to step into those shoes anymore than we have already?

Let me be clear in saying that learning about this time in history is necessary but doing so in a role playing game is not appropriate.

If your idea of “celebrating” the contributions of Black people during the month of February is a lesson in slavery…you are the one that needs a lesson in history and the countless contributions that we not only have made but are still making.

Our enslavement is not and should not be your lesson on resilience and grit.

In the Words of Sabrina Stevens @TeacherSabrina (shared with her permission)

1) Simulation is almost impossible to do ethically, which is why so many people end up being fired for missteps in this area 
2) Enslavement happens between two peoples, it doesn’t just happen to one. Talking about black people being enslaved without adequately discussing the economic motivations of the slave holders and the centrality of slavery to America’s founding/ the origins of capitalism is erroneous and problematic.
It reinforces the idea that black people are somehow innately “slave-ish” versus illuminating the fact that white slave owners did this for a reason, and that the society benefiting from this brutality created elaborate legal, social and moral codes to justify it, including stereotypes that remain with us to this very day.
You can’t understand oppression by rehashing/pitying the experience of the oppressed; only by also unpacking the motivations and actions of the oppressor.
You can’t “celebrate” a people by constantly discussing up the worst thing that ever happened to them in an incomplete and misleading fashion, while absolving the people responsible for it of their guilt.

Sparking Wonder One Idea At a Time

Braeden and his entry into the TCEA cardboard mascot challenge
Braeden and his entry into the TCEA cardboard mascot challenge

For over a year, I thought that my nephew found a love for puppetry after watching the muppet movie which then led to a binge night of creation culminating in an epic facetime call with me.

Last week, at TCEA, while listening to my nephew share his story during his session, I learned that his drive to create puppets started long before that. Two years ago, while Braeden was in 2nd grade, his teacher assigned a “recycling” project where kids were to take things found around the house to create something new.

According to Braeden, he chose to make a puppet marionette (He has no idea why he chose this) which did not work as planned. I remember him being upset about it because someone in his class broke it. Even though the project was over, he wanted to make a new one but decided to take a fuzzy wallet and turn it into a puppet…for his own personal fun, instead. This is what brought on the need to see the muppet movie and why he started learning through youtube to make puppets.

Two years, 8 puppets…1 mascot suit…and more art created than we could ever have imagined later, I can say without a doubt that Braeden’s itch for creating did in fact start in his classroom…but was certainly cultivated at home.

Sparking Wonder in the “Braedens” of Your Classroom

Braeden’s story of creativity, as amazing as it is, isn’t that unique. There are children like him in every classroom…waiting to have their “wonder” sparked…waiting on an opportunity to explore…waiting on the chance to shine.

I remember Braeden’s time in 2nd grade and it wasn’t pretty. As a matter of fact, it was a year of “district aligned” drill & kill but this project…this chance to create…mattered more than anything because his assignment TO CREATE led him along a path of wonder and into the arms of authentic learning.

That one “time killing” project…started this entire journey of passion driven inspiration and we will forever be thankful for it!

If you are wondering how to spark wonder in your students, look no further than re-evaluating what we think has value.

Don’t say…”We don’t have time to do that project”…Find it.

Don’t say…”My kids can’t do that”…Believe in them.

Don’t say…”Their parents probably did that for them”…Kids are capable of much more than we often give them credit for.

Don’t say…”We can’t do that unless I can grade it”…Embedding a love of learning is grade-less.

Say instead…

While this activity may seem silly at first, I have no idea which creative soul may awaken. I have to do this because when I give my students the opportunity to freely express…they are afforded the chance to connect to the unexplainable fire within. Every kid deserves this opportunity. Every…Single…One

My Eduparent Perspective: Identity Crisis

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 6.22.23 PMWhen my daughter was three, we enrolled her in her first ballet class with gymnastics soon thereafter. The natural progression from that point was competitive cheerleading which she participated in until she was in high school. My niece followed the same pattern. As a matter of fact, our girls were the most “girliest” of girls growing up with huge bows to match every outfit, socks with ruffles, purses, pretend makeup and dolls of every kind. Their first favorite color? Pink…because we made it that way.

My son had a bit more freedom but he too was subjected to who he was through our purchases and desires. We bought him footballs, wrestlers, super heroes and clothing of the most “boyish” type. He played football at 5 years old because we enrolled him, which he hated. It killed me to force him to go to practice but in a space where boys were meant to play sports, he had no choice…until I stared listening. He finally quit and only returned when he wanted to do so.

There are moments that I wish that we could turn back the clock to the days when we decided who our children would be and undid those decisions. As a matter of fact, every time I watch Braeden create some new amazing piece of art, I think of where he would be had we not allowed him the freedom to pursue his own interest. I also think of how we may have deprived our other children in choosing for them.

When I shop for clothes with Braeden, he opts for neutrals, game based or more artistic attire. He won’t wear things with “boyish” sports themes or “rude kid” themes. (Yes, my son wore those too…unfortunately) He is his own person and we respect that.

He is the architect of his own identity. Every kid should be.

I’m glad that we learned from our mistakes and refused to rob him of the person that he is becoming.

Choice starts with the very young. It should anyway.

Because Black Kids Get Suspended for Talking

It’s only fitting that my first post of 2015 is about my 15 year old son…my motivation for equity and advocacy. The phone rings. It’s his principal… “I’m calling to inform you that I am putting your son in ISS because he was talking in geometry and his teacher said that she asked him to stop talking…Continue Reading

Growth in Numbers: Reflecting on #GTAATX Day 1

What happens when you put 50 “forward-thinking” educators into a room and ask them to devise a plan to change their educational landscape or even the world? They not only attack their “self-selected” problem. They also unearth dynamics that they did not even realize existed. This is life right now at Google Teacher Academy and…Continue Reading