Things I Know 231 of 365: Let’s kill school

Kill the mothership.

– Kendall Crolius

In 2006, the former head of San Diego schools Alan Bersin commented on his controversial approach to improving the district’s schools. Not surprisingly, I reacted strongly to much of what Bersin had to say. One comment has remained lodged in my brain since I first read the piece:

In the elementary schools, we moved schools out of the bottom deciles through a common instructional program.  In the secondary schools, the surest way to remove schools from the academic cellar was to shut them down.

I don’t disagree with Bersin, not generally. He’s certainly not the first to suggest hitting the “do over” button as a path to rejuvenating failing schools. I’m sure he won’t be the last.

In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Johnson and Horn tinker around the idea when they suggest fixing ailing schools is akin to repairing an airplane mid-flight.

An apt analogy.

Watching the design teams present today at Reimagine:Ed’s Next Chapter summit, an approach other than powering down and deconstructing occurred to me.

Shut everything down but the library.

Build out from there.

Start a 1:1 laptop program in the school with online and blended classes. Staff the library 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Host study sessions at regular intervals in each discipline. According to student interest, begin pouring money into music, drama and visual arts programs.

Still, no straight physical classes.

Still, a 24-hour library.

During the day, have students design and form student organizations with faculty sponsorship. Technically, these organizations will count as electives. They will range from urban farming to bicycle repair to yoga. At the same time, start up school sports teams with the same eligibility requirements the school had in place before (or more stringent).

In the meantime, students begin repurposing the physical space with funding saved from the reduced overhead of operating the school.

This classroom is a student-run thrift store. The school paper is next door and actually serves as a periodical for the entire neighborhood.

Across the hall, what was a long-neglected home economics room transitions to a coffee shop.

As students determine their interests, they use the library to find the resources they need to draft the business plan the school requires of any student-led venture. Most of these initiatives feature parent volunteers who have parallel careers acting as community advisors.

At night, through a partnership with the local community college, students take college-level courses with local community members. The courses are joint-funded by the school and the college. They are taught by the school’s faculty.

Students comment the spaces make them owners of the school and provide them with the flexibility and support they need while expecting high levels of learning. Teachers comment they able to design more dynamic curricula, build close relationships with their students and  emphasize knowledge, skills and understandings in ways that are authentic and deep. The parents, at first resistant, are amazed how involved their kids are in the school community. They admit life is easier now that their kids have class schedules that fit with their natural internal clocks.

College admissions offices confide they’re amazed to have applicants with diverse interests and college credit. Secretly they worry their universities’ lack of entrepreneurial options might make it difficult to attract the students of the school. Community members – frequent guests and participants at the school – feel a sense of ownership and protectiveness for the space. They take credit for the reduced crime rate around the school since their neighborhood patrol has started guarding what many of them see as the center of their communities.

no straight classes.

24-hour library

robust arts programs

student-led organizations

student entrepreneurship

community involvement/ownership

college preparation/credit

I’d want to teach there.

I’d want to learn there.


Things I Know 230 of 365: I’m here to provoke

“[Key] part of design process is to have empathy for a user. And you [as a designer] are not that user.”

– Jeff Sharpe

I’m in Atlanta this weekend happily working with the good folks at Reimagine:ED as they host their Next Chapter summit at The Lovett School. For three days, librarians and designers from around the country are assembled to talk about the future of K-12 librarying. Good-hearted and creative people are imagining through a design process to decide what this ancient idea and act can come to mean to the students of now and the future.

Last night, the assembled thinkers chose from a collection of crowdsourced collection of questions and challenges surrounding library. The three challenges of the week are ideas any school or thinking and creating space would do well to wrestle with:

  • Design a successful ‘unquiet’ library.
  • What must K-12 libraries do to spur continual innovation, to make libraries the places and spaces our learners crave going forward?
  • Like a city provides a park the people can use in the myriad of ways, how can the library of the future be designed like a park of possibilities?

I hope the people around my siblings’ learning spaces are thinking about these things or other iterations of them.

I’m considering continuing to use the title printed on my name tag long after I’m done here – Provocateur.

I know about making things and I know about books, but I’d clarify myself as neither a designer nor a librarian. My work here is to push thinking. As a student, as a teacher and as an improviser – I’m one of several provocateurs here this weekend traveling from cohort to cohort, pushing thinking.

It’s a title that comes close to what I’d like to do (and what I like to do).

According to, a provocateur is “a person hired to make trouble,” or “challenger.” I like that.

With care and compassion, listening and questioning, I like the idea of being a person hired to make trouble.

Thanks to Laura Deisley, Jeff Sharpe and Christian Long for asking me to be involved. And thanks for the new title.