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LEGO Idea 2018: Day 2

So the second day started like this:

I could have watched Arvind Gupta for hours. His presence was gift enough. But then he mentioned that his project is open-source so 100s of his and others’ designs are available for free on his website. When I got to http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/, I discovered he also has work on there about John Holt. Kindred spirits and teachers everywhere I look these days…

The next lecture was Rebecca Winthrop sharing her work on Leapfrogging. From the sounds of it, Brookings is naming something that individuals have done for ages–learn from others’ processes and opt to skip steps of development where possible–to help organizations and systems intentionally look for opportunities to do the same, accelerating their development. Examples of leapfrogging would be countries opting not to lay cables for landline phones and organizations opting not to build brick-and-mortar bank buildings (presuming they haven’t already done these things), focusing their resources instead on cell phone service and mobile banking. The question I wrote down was “What have we assumed is necessary but we’re actually just emotionally attached to and can release to accelerate positive change?” Our industrial model schools, perhaps? Then Rebecca went on to show a rubric for gauging where an alternative education practice/system’s teaching and learning are in relationship to our conventional models versus the “breadth of skills” (aka 21st century skills) model the research says we should be reaching for. We did an exercise where we got into groups and discussed where each of our projects would be on the rubric. I laughed…ALC was so clearly it that my group was urging me to share if Rebecca called for volunteers to talk about their group’s conversation. “Leapfrogging,” a gentleman phrased it to me later, “would be a country going straight to building centers like yours and training facilitators instead of developing a school system.” Usually I’m not into men I just met telling me about my work, but in this case it was affirming and exciting. I’ll be reading the Brookings research before the summer season of trainings starts, for sure.

Next I went to a session on BRAC’s practices. I learned that they involve community members in setting up their centers from the start, asking them to help find a location they feel safe sending their children to and asking them for suggestions of which local young women to train as staff. I made a note to share that practice with some of the start-up groups in Mexico who had been asking about parent safety concerns…It makes a lot of sense to me. I learned that their training for the young women playworkers (they intentionally pick girls and young women from the community, to develop their skills, empower them, and offer them work experience) typically includes about 5 days of theory, practice, and monthly check-ins with other playworker/facilitators. Sounds familiar 🙂 Finally, I learned that they include parents and other family members by offering workshops, encouraging volunteering, and organizing space-work days where they provide materials for parents to come in and make toys together. Clearly the approach was carefully designed to empower and enrich whole communities, and I was delighted to learn how successful it’s been. It’s the kind of approach to change-making that I’d love to see way more of in the world…something I thought about when at one point I turned around to start an activity and saw that Sir Fazle Abed and his wife were both in the session with us, participating.

The afternoon kicked off with a panel discussion about global scaling. Sharath Jeevan of Stir offered an illustration of nonprofits working to influence governments as ants biting an elephant, powerful only if they’re strategic, that I’m going to save for when we get into the work of advocating for SDE-friendly policy changes as a network. My notes on this conversation are a bit fragmented, but I highlighted ’embracing complexity while seeking simplicity’ and ‘build platforms so people can do the work of applying your idea on the ground where they are’ as themes. Saku Tuominen of HundrED said near closing that one of the reason innovations don’t catch on and spread is that those doing the work don’t take time to broadcast. He’s right…It’s something that’s been on my mind in relation to ALC for a few months now. We have to share generously, and that means valuing sharing enough to intentionally protect time for doing so.

My last workshop of the conference was one I sort-of ended up at by accident. My brain was too full, and I got the numbers of the sessions I’d signed up for all mixed up. It worked out though; I ended up at the South Africa Cares session on “6 Bricks” exercises for kids and teachers. I hadn’t been looking for a session on classroom exercises, but I’m really glad I ended up at this one. First, it sounds like their organization does some really cool work, and I’m excited to now know about them so I can read more once I’m settled back home. Second, I recognized that their exercises incorporate Brain Gym movements, so I got to have some really interesting conversations about that and am back to wondering if I should find someone to teach me more about their therapy model. So cool.

We went back downstairs to hear from a panel of observers sharing harvests from the sessions they’d been in that day. Then Kiran Bir Sethi shared a framework her schools use that sounded so much like the ALC 4th root that I sent a photo to the facilitators who have been working on re-wording that root (it’s the principle about learning being a process that includes intention, exploration, iteration, reflection, and sharing). She also shared an adorable video of her kids doing their project-based-learning stuff and being awesome, remarking that once a kid experiences being a catalyst for change, the way they relate to their world changes. It’s so good to know there are people all over the world raising empowered kids. Gives me hope.


And just like that, we were at the closing session. I committed to record a video reflection, but I’m writing two blog posts instead (I’m recording a video on something else tomorrow…). Made some music with everyone to close the event out, video-called the NYC kids (just like I did from Mexico! Gotta love tech…), took a silly selfie with Liam under the giant LEGO tree, said good-bye to new friends I’ll hopefully cross paths with again someday, and prepared for the long journey home.

LEGO Idea 2018: Day 1

A few months ago, I was invited to the LEGO Idea conference. At first, I wasn’t sure if my schedule and finances would work out in a way that would let me go, but…suddenly it was April and I was off to Denmark. #WorthIt

Before I even got to the LEGO House for the conference, I’d noticed how the nearby hotel, restaurant, and park spaces were clearly designed to be accessible for children. The reception desk where I was staying had steps leading to it, which I watched a 6 or 7 year old confidently climb when he came in alone to ask directions to a specific playground, and these sculpture garden picnic tables made me smile:

Sometimes, other adults talk about “learning through play” the same way they talk about hiding broccoli in macaroni and cheese. I’ll show up to conversations excited to discuss empowering kids (and adults) to make choices in a context where we’re all learning from our experiences of being alive. I’ll show up excited, playful, intentional, eager to collaborate, clear that learning is interdisciplinary and that ‘student’ is a verb and…then someone will start talking about hiding multiplication drills in a video game. Let’s just say it’s disappointing.

Leading up to the conference, hearing the pop phrase “learning through play” coupled with the theme “Empowering Children to Shape Tomorrow” had me hopeful the LEGO Foundation folks *actually* got it. But I wasn’t sure.

As John Goodwin told the stories of the women in his family, reflecting on the relationships between their schooling paths and their career paths, my hesitation started to fall away. Then he put up this slide:

I grinned. The CEO of LEGO was speaking my language. And it got better from there.


My notes from the rest of the opening plenary are brief and enthusiastic scribbles about how Goodwin and then Jaime Saavedra were explaining to this room of 400 people–in much the same language I’ve used with much smaller groups–that our schools are expressions of education systems with outdated priorities, why that needs to change, and how the current research supports the new systems prioritizing nurturing creative and self-expressed humans. By the time they turned us loose to play for a few hours, the certainty that this was a crowd I’d find collaborators and friends in had me nearly dizzy with excitement.

I came back to earth pretty quickly. My first stop when exploring the LEGO House was an experiment group where half of us were instructed to be playful, half were told not to play, and we were all charged with making “ducks or creatures like ducks.” Being in the “playful” group, I made a well-eyebrowed hydra duck. When time was up, I was surprised to hear others in my group comment that they felt insecure about being less creative than me. When the facilitator of the experiment asked to interview someone from each side, my group nominated me “as the resident artist.” All in all, the experiment was interesting and fun. That said, rather than walking away reflecting on the difference in experience when an activity is framed as as a work assignment versus as play, I found myself reflecting on what impacts the amount of permission we give ourselves to be silly, how to re-teach adults to play, what alienates people from their creativity, and how my reaction to hearing someone else experience my play as devaluing theirs was an impulse to shrink that hasn’t felt that strong since junior high. It was fascinating…

Playing a few other games, finding adults who did want to play together, and talking to the “Play Guides” (the facilitator, play-worker staff) about their experiences pulled me out of my head, and I was re-centered pretty quickly. When I rounded a corner and saw a group of kids in the car-building space, the part of me that always protests after too many hours of adult-only sessions at ALC events and relaxes when the kids show up sent appreciation and thanks to whatever conference-planner thought to invite them.

The afternoon started with Sir Fazle Abed receiving an award and sharing about his journey growing BRAC. Hearing him cite Freire as inspiration and discuss how intentional he’d been about keeping BRAC’s operations community-based, I was reminded that ALC is part of a movement with a very long, rich, and encouraging history. I made a mental note to sign up for the session on BRAC’s parent and playworker education approach for the next day.

Chernor Bah spoke next. He shared about how his school teachers had complained about his playfulness, how his mom had encouraged him to keep playing, and how his ability to connect with others through play served him through war, displacements, and language barriers. He also talked about becoming aware that he’d been encouraged and able to develop his playfulness more than his sisters, which motivated him to think about and then found an organization to address gender inequality. Chernor didn’t really speak about his experiences as a youth activist, advocate, and organizer–which makes sense, I guess, since the topic was ‘play’ and learning journeys–but I’d read a little bit about his work before. Pretty awe-inspiring…

After the talks, we dispersed back through the LEGO House to hear other speakers’ stories of how they came to be who they are and do what they do. I ended up with my shoes off, in a giant pool of Duplo bricks, discussing the MIT Media Lab and how to keep misogyny from discouraging our teen girl gamer-maker-creators or convincing them to shrink themselves.

My last ‘formal’ session of the day was one recommended for first time conference attendees: “What do we mean by Learning Through Play?” One of the presenters has a hand in training most of the playworker/facilitator staff in the LEGO House, so I was curious to experience his facilitation.

The LEGO foundation has pretty illustrations of their 5 characteristics of play and 5 holistic development skills developed through play on their website, but it was fun to hear a bit about their research process. *And* I learned through that session that their whitepaper is available online. Excited to read that and share it with the SDE community.

Between all this, I’d gotten to chat with a bunch of rad and inspiring people who set up libraries and children’s museums, who worldschool and free school, who run maker-spaces and national education systems, who play and who parent. AND I walked around outside a bunch. Got back to my hotel tired, grateful, and curious about what I’d learn processing all my notes.


ALF Resource: Intergenerational Trauma

After reflecting a bit on how I’ve been voraciously consuming nonfiction without pausing to share out my learning–waiting, I think, to see the whole tapestry it’ll become once I weave the pieces together–I’ve decided to push myself to share my draft-y notes. Here’s the first attempt:

The other night, I got home and decided to Google around for a resource or two on working with Intergenerational Trauma. Sometimes I relate to facilitation as a mix of midwifery and healing work…and then I end up looking for frameworks that can inform my practice and help me better serve my relationships.

After a few *eh* articles, this video came up in my results. I saw how long it was and almost didn’t click. Then I decided to just listen to the intro while I did some dishes. Over an hour later, the talk ended and I discovered myself with two pages of doodled notes and a cup of cold tea. My head was buzzing with how affirmed my sense that ALF work is healing work was, with the impact of pausing to really look at the evolution of violences across time, and with curiosity about the learning journey of the speaker, Nene Kwasi Kafele.

Notes below the video. For tl;dr folks, here’s a quote:

“Nurture, cultivate, support the genius of young people…in ways that are safe, respectful, and healthy. Be with them on this journey in a way that respects their lived experiences and sees their cultures as legitimate…”

Noted that an environment for survivor youth should be safe, reassuring, supportive, effective, providing stabilization, helping them see the paths forward in terms of addressing the problem and building their own resilience

Youth agency is crucial

Opportunities to express, process, and name needed supports in groups and individually are helpful

…so to this point describing much of what our school feels like…

Notes to be aware of coping tendencies like psychic numbing, of the repeated mention of CBT as helpful in trauma response management/breathing/visualizations

Notes on how “trauma” as a term/concept is highly Western, with introduced terms Mengamaazi: Willful, organized, coordinated, prolonged destruction and suffering and Maafa: Disaster, overwhelmingly terrible catastrophe. (Kiswahili)

*just* discovered all the resources at http://youthrex.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Intergenerational-Trauma-Healing-September-27-Resources.pdf while checking my spelling

Thinking of looking more into which traumas our institutions reinforce as well as how to reckon with the dance between survivors of survivors and survivors of perpetrators generations on

The Talk I Never Gave

Last Tuesday, a friend reached out and asked about giving a TEDx talk at the United Nations International School. It’s been a draining couple of weeks, and I was intrigued but not feeling quite on top of my game. I asked what he wanted me to talk about, ready to say ‘no.’ Agile, he said. The future of education, he said. You’d have to be mad not to, my other friends said. So I got to thinking.

Public speaking has never been a problem for me. I have some trouble with scripts, so never really got into acting, but over the years I’ve read, sung, done Q&A’s, been interviewed, lead trainings and sessions and classes and…it’s really nothing new at this point.

That said, I have my own style of preparing. It always works, but it used to get me into trouble as a kid. My teachers wanted notecards to grade; my parents wanted mirror-rehearsals to time. I wanted to learn the material, think it over, bullet a couple main points, then get up and improvise.

Maybe it was “TED” or “UNIS” or just fatigue, but I got really anxious as soon as I agreed to do this talk. I knew I had all the information and skills I needed, but the old, well-schooled self-doubt took hold anyway. In spite of the best efforts of friends to reassure me, I gave hours to writing an essay, making detailed notes to get all the words exact, and practicing late each of the three nights before the event.

I got to UNIS at 8:30 am on Saturday, chatted with kids and staff, had some coffee. The lights dimmed, and I listened to the well-rehearsed speeches of some 7 to 9 year olds and waited. The girl next to me grinned as a mic was clipped onto my dress. Things went quiet and the background slide changed. I smiled reassuringly at the boy who announced my name. Walked out to the middle of the red square, as directed, and…choked.

My notes looked blurry. The audience waited, their faces kind and blurry, too. I flushed. Stumbled through a sentence or two, trying to coax what I’d prepared back into my mind. And then I took a breath and let go.


Narrated reality to the audience as I tucked my notes into my boot and switched my brain from ‘giving a talk’ to ‘talking to the humans in front of me.’ There weren’t so many of them. They were kids there to present, parents there for their kids, and staff there to run things. I breathed and talked and don’t really remember what I said, but I think it was mostly on-topic. They smiled.



Maybe the responses I got were sincere; maybe they were just polite. Regardless, I was reminded that–no matter how much progress I make–I’m still de-schooling, and my self-doubt shadow is always most dangerous when I’m fooled into thinking I’ve escaped it.

Next time, I’ll do it my way from the start. This is me writing a note to my future self, for when I need the reminder.


And just for kicks, here’s the speech that only my mirror got to hear in full:

In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson gave a Ted talk that would go on to become one of the most viewed Ted talks of all time. It was called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” But he doesn’t start by talking about either creativity or schools. Rather he starts with the question that you’re asking today: the question “What next?” And his answer is that we have no idea. He goes on to explain that this is why everyone has a stake in education. It’s education, he says, that’s meant to take us into this future we can’t grasp. From there he goes on to discuss schooling, as if education and schooling were the same thing. But this is the problem. They’re not. And if they were, he wouldn’t have had much to talk about.

Why? Well. When I say ‘education’ I’m referring to all the experiences that shape your brain and your sense of self. These are the experiences through which you learn what you care about, what your strengths are, how to make choices, and what kind of impact you want to have on the world. This is…very different from schooling. Schooling is what most people think of when they hear ‘education’ but it’s a word with a much narrower definition. Schooling refers to a process designed in the 19th century to prepare young people for the factory jobs that it seemed most of them were headed for. And at the time this made sense, but that’s not the world we’re sharing today. They had printing presses and steam engines; we have WhatsApp, Minecraft, and Uber. And even though we don’t know what the world you’ll graduate into will look like–though I’m rooting for the solar roofs and self-driving cars–we’re pretty sure it’ll look different than the world of today.

Which brings us back to Sir Ken Robinson. Ten years ago, when he gave that talk, he asked that we stretch our definitions. That we have the courage to question the very assumptions about ‘what’s next’ that schools were designed around, so we could create schools which nurture creativity and value a variety of intelligences…the ideas danced and drawn as well as those calculated and spellchecked. He challenged us to stretch schooling until it looks more like education, so it helps young people develop the skills we’ll need to face the unknown.

And that’s the work I do. Currently, I serve as co-director at one of these schools for the future, called the Agile Learning Center. Since we know learning is happening all the time, that really all living is potentially education, we focus on the skills of deciding what to learn, figuring out how to learn it, applying what we learn across contexts, and practicing all this self-direction while building community together. It’s work. It’s fun. It replaces grades and tests with conversations and explorations, so each day brings new surprises for us to adapt to.

Now you probably aren’t in a position to radically redesign your school at the moment, and that’s ok. You still have the power to bring more education into your schooling…and to nurture those skills you need for the future in your out-of-classroom life. Find your art. Feed your creativity. You can learn improvisation games to practice meeting the unknown with confidence. Pay attention to communication styles around you–spoken and unspoken–and how they work. Try to understand those who are different from you.

When your schooling is finished, your education continues. I’m excited to co-create the future with you–that’s the mission, should you choose to accept it–but we’ll have to learn to collaborate and you’ll have to stay curious whether the Scantron values your efforts or not. If you’re in, let’s start practicing now. Thank you.

A Day-Trip: Franklin Institute and Bresslergroup Debate

Last Thursday morning, most of the ALC-NYC crew headed towards East Harlem for a day of philosophy, visitors, Japanese, wrestling, music, and more.

Meanwhile, I texted with my co-conspiritors and packed a notebook into my field trip bag.

Learning is natural and happening all the time.

I’m generally a fan of our foundational principles at ALC, but the first one (above) is my favorite. As soon as we stop pretending that learning only happens through schooling, we get to start thinking about the kinds of experiences we want contributing to our education. Which means field trips. In this case, it meant a day trip to Philadelphia with Douglas, Javair, and Geva.

All three were still a bit tired after a long weekend in Boston for MIT Media Lab’s Virtual Reality Hack-a-thon (where they were finalists!), but Javair’s imminent departure made them all determined to pack as much as they could into their last few days collaborating in person. They’d met my friend Nick McGill over Maker Faire weekend, when he was trend-spotting and they (well…Douglas…) were talking game-design. They enjoyed picking his brain, and when I mentioned that the company he works for, Bresslergroup, was holding a debate on the nature of innovation, they made clear that both the content and the company interested them. So off we went.

Having two wonderful co-facilitators this year means I can do things like spend whole school days off-site with two kids and a parent. We got a decently early start, and managed to arrive in Philly just in time to have lunch with Nick. When he went back to work, we walked over to the Franklin Institute to check out their Robot Revolution exhibit. We compared robotic “hands,” played Tic-Tac-Toe, and scrambled a Rubix Cube. I particularly liked the wall-climbing robot that was designed to mimic a lizard. Douglas was more interested in the robotic baby seal, while Geva and Javair competed to catch the eye of a face-tracking Robotis. Then I listened while they discussed the wheels and programming of the soccer bots. I…couldn’t really follow. But I did get to share the pendulum and walk-through heart with them after we left the robots!


 The doors for the Bresslergroup event opened around 6. We headed over a little early, hoping to get a glimpse of Nick’s workspace. Can’t really write about what we saw, but our tour inspired lots of excitement and questions. Curious to see how long it takes before I’m handed a wishlist for our Makerspace 😉

After our tour, we headed to the lobby for the great debate. Douglas picked front-row seats for us, and I ended up sitting across the aisle from my crew. Watching their faces was as much fun as listening to the debate, but I was eager to hear their thoughts on our journey home…especially since they voted for different sides at the end.

 Innovation: driven by research or technology? Do you invest in seeking to understand your customer base’s wants and needs? Or do you presume they can’t know to ask for a tool they can’t imagine, so you invest in developing new technologies? The question got us talking about the nature of both creativity and of markets. Like a good debate question, it gave us lots to consider as we reflected on the evening.

Douglas voted for Team Research at the end of the evening. He made clear that his vote was not necessarily aligned with his personal opinion; rather, he explained that he heard Team Research make multiple sound arguments to support their side, where he heard Team Tech stick mostly to one argument. He really enjoyed the “quips” and pleasantly competitive banter from both teams, though he mentioned that he’d have preferred moderation that prioritized point-counterpoint discussion over polling of participants for each question.

Javair voted for Team Technology, in large part because he agreed that you have to create a product for people to interact with before you can research [using technology] how they receive it. He really appreciated the dynamic between the teams and the distinct contributions of each individual.

In the end, we agreed with the debaters that Research and Technology are interdependent. Since we play in alternative education, we touched on the evening’s assumption that we value innovation and have the courage to pursue it, one way or another. It’s an assumption that holds true for all of us, but we agreed it’d be interesting to discuss what it takes to get someone to that starting point. And what did we decide is necessary for those interested in innovation? Douglas said that a willingness to compromise and incorporate others’ ideas, without losing your vision, is invaluable in general and particularly helpful when collaborating on new projects. Javair advised that aspiring innovators choose questions and causes they feel passionately about so that they can stay motivated to persevere through challenges. He also cited the creation story of the video-game Prison Architect to support Douglas’ idea that willingness to adapt plans and change direction opens space for surprise successes.

Our verdict on the evening all in all? We arrived back in NYC happily exhausted and plotting our next Philly trip. Hopefully there’ll be more engineering adventures for us soon!


*I intentionally tried not to mention people’s ages, to avoid inviting assumptions about their knowledge and capabilities. I also left out much of what Geva and I had to say about the debate…mostly because it’s much more fun and interesting focusing on young people’s voices.

Brainpickings Gem for New Years

Famous thinkers’ self-growth resolutions? Thanks, Brainpickings!

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. I dread being asked for my “resolution,” as for most of December and January the word conjures in my mind a memory of facebook-feeds-gone-by filled with well-meant and mostly ill-fated resolutions to go to the gym every single day. Or the sincere and enthusiastic promises to “be happy” or “be healthy” or “be” (presumably “become”) some other undefined state.

Before you ‘bah humbug’ me, know that it’s not that I think little of any of the folks whose status’ I’m thinking of…it’s that I think a lot of them. I want feelings of strength and happiness and health for each of them, and I know they can accomplish anything they set out to. But “set out” is a verb. “Accomplish” is a verb. These things require thinking about personal definitions (what does being an embodiment of happiness look like to me?) and planning, choosing, changing, metamorphosing…which I find often feels pretty magical in retrospect but feels suspiciously like work in the moment.

Honest reflections, personal goals, action plans and other such reminders to be a dynamic human being, I can dig. Pausing for a breath at the end of our calendar year, around the winter solstice, between approximate halves of the school year sounds like a really nice ritual. Setting a time to meet and write up lists of projects/goals for the next six months and talk about plans to actualize our intentions [which @ryanshollenberger gathered a group to do yesterday] sounds interesting and productive. And reading thought-prompts about ways to grow myself sounds like how I want to start my winter reflection every year.