you're reading...

Children and Cardboard Boxes

Give a child a cardboard box and magic happens.

The ratty, old box becomes an airplane and the child the pilot or a hospital and the child the doctor. The cardboard box takes them on adventures and helps them explore imaginary places in their minds. The cardboard box brings them joy and inspires creativity and imagination. With a few tools, they are inspired to build upon, transform, and reinvent their cardboard boxes.

Then our children are sent to schools….

which replace the former boxes. They are taught that learning happens within walls. They are taught to learn a certain way. They must sit in uncomfortable desks for long periods of time. They must remain silent and do work. They must follow the rules and stay away from the Internet. They must stop playing and daydreaming and listen to their teachers. They must sit for hours and fill out the bubbles of a test and if they don’t do it correctly then they’re force to repeat the gruesome cycle for another year.  This type of education prepares them to work in cubicles. The children who are unfortunate to be born in bad neighborhoods suffer the worst of schooling. Their schools often look like prisons. This type of education prepares them to be in prisons. In general, most of our students are learning to follow the rules, listen to authority, and forget the imagination and creativity they had as children with cardboard boxes.

Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson’s message, “Schools kill creativity.” This is the problem, but what is the solution?

We want our children to be creative and create. We shouldn’t want them to think outside the cardboard box; we should want them to transform and revolutionize the box just like they used to do with cardboard boxes. See we inherently are gifted with the ability to dream. When we are children even in the worst conditions we still come out dreaming and seeing the world as it should be. Our imaginations take us to better worlds and we dream idealistically. We don’t see the barriers of reality placed by others. We don’t just see ratty, old boxes.

This is the problem, but what is the solution? So how do we as educators ensure our schools don’t kill creativity? How do we become catalysts for change?

How do we begin to reverse the damage of schooling?

We need to find ways to convince teachers not on this forum to use technology not because our students use it or will be expected to in their careers. We need to convince teachers to use technology to tear down our classroom walls. Use technology to show students that their voices can travel the world just like ours voices do when we tweet, update a status on Facebook, share a blog post, or collaborate on a ning. We need to convince teachers to use technology to motivate students to continuously research and to show them that their work transcends beyond the class bulletin board.

We need to convince teachers to develop Personal/Passionate Learning Networks (PLNs) so they hear these messages and learn to reflect and evolve their instructional practices.

These aren’t the only solutions, just the beginning.

Yet, how do we inspire teachers to react and act?

How do we go beyond spreading the word through blogs, conferences, and workshops and get teachers to act?

I believe we have educator leaders in our PLNs who get buy-in. Here are things I have seen them do:

  • They are passionate in their writing and presentations.
  • They show real examples of how these ideas impact students.
  • They commit personal time to ensuring the educators they speak to have the resources to carry out the action. Often this is in a wiki or posted on their blogs.
  • They record their presentations and spread them. We should never be embarrassed to be viral. I don’t see this as self-promotion. We need to be louder and not worry about offending others. In fact, we will offend others, because anyone changing a system does. We want our messages spread. Celebrities and even our youth do not find any shame in putting up their videos on Youtube, etc. That is why they go viral or become trending topics.
  • They research the art of giving presentations. They watch the TED Talks and read books and blogs on this subject.
  • They read books and blogs by revolutionary thinkers.

Does this describe you? Were you a bit embarrassed to think it did? Don’t be! We need educator leaders to be fed up, stand up, and begin spreading a message of change. We need the goal to inspire reaction and action. So now how do we as educator leaders begin to collaborate and add power to this message?

About Shelly Sanchez Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, international speaker, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning: Ways to Launch EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, Learning to Go, and Teacher Reboot Camp. She has trained teachers and taught learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert and ambassador for the U.S. Embassy. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women and received a Bammy Award as the founder of #Edchat. Her greatest joy is being the mother of Savannah. She currently enjoys being a PBL elementary teacher and curriculum writer in Houston, Texas.


20 thoughts on “Children and Cardboard Boxes

  1. Perfect Shelly. I’m so glad you’re here.

    Shipping just now…

    {My vantage point – currently reading Roger Martin’s The Design of Business and researching Seeducation.}

    We have home school.
    We have public school.
    We have charter school.

    Martin says that in order to create abductive thinking or design thinking, we need to bring together reliability and validity, analytical and intuitive, administration and invention, management and innovation ..

    On the Seeducation site – take a look at the page describing their values –

    I’m thinking that the mindset of Seeducation – is the revolution we are looking for.
    {more from their about us:}

    I’m thinking we let Seeducation be our summer ballpark.. not hardly a cardboard box.. but let’s go play there – see where we can go.

    Posted by monika hardy | June 14, 2010, 9:42 am
    • Hi Monika,

      I was going through the Seeducation web site the other day. I was really impressed. I like the various materials offered and that funding is part of the solution as well as campaigning and professional development. I definitely think this is a great platform to spur change. I will have to join the Facebook to experience the social side and meet the forces of the movement. Thank you for sharing this web site.

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 14, 2010, 4:10 pm
  2. Shelly, thanks for this! As I read this, I couldn’t help but think that you were speaking directly to me.

    Five years ago, I revolutionized my teaching pedagogy and practices. I started blogging in January and I have faced some resistance. I’ve had colleagues label me as arrogant and pushy. I’ve been told to not share my “propoganda”.

    Without my virtual PLN, I could see myself succumbing to the pressure to just shut up.

    Thanks for this reassurance.


    Posted by Joe Bower | June 14, 2010, 11:22 am
    • Hi Joe,
      In Seth Godin’s, Tribes, he writes, “Once you choose to lead, you’ll be under pressure to reconsider your choice, to compromise, to dumb it down, or to give up. Of course you will. That’s the world’s job: to get you to be quiet and follow….But once you choose to lead, you’ll also discover that it’s not so difficult. That the options available to you seem really clear, and that yes, in fact, you can get from here to there.” I think this really speaks to us as leaders. We want our students to step up, yet we know how difficult it is to be set apart from the crowd. We know they will face struggles. We need to go their first and paint a real picture for them of what it means to be a change agent. We read biographies of famous leaders and about their struggles. What got these leaders through the struggles was their vision and passion for change. That’s why I think our PLN is so important. Daily we are reminded that we aren’t alone. We aren’t the only ones who know the system has to change. You inspire me in so many ways. You have a strong voice and know your views and stick with them. Colleagues who label you as pushy do so because you are pushing them. To me that is a good label and sign. 😉 More educators should be pushed out of their comfort zones.

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 14, 2010, 4:24 pm
  3. It’s befuddling that the metaphorical box of school is less flexible than a real card board box. Even asking students to learn standardized content through a card board box would be an innovation (measurement, geometry, life-cycles of producers, history of industry and commerce, 3-D narratives).

    Shelly, what do you think keeps amazing teaching from going viral? Are we complicit with a false humility or propriety that keeps us from promoting our work outside the safety of the PLN? #nonrhetorical

    Great post – thank you!

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 14, 2010, 1:12 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      I think there are many factors that keep amazing teaching from going viral. I’ll expand on one. In my experience most teachers are burnt out. They have so much energy they give to their students, mundane tasks like grading, their families, and other duties. If they don’t have a PLN then they aren’t feeding themselves and receiving that energy back. Teaching is a giving profession. Most give their heart and souls but after awhile they become disenfranchised when the system doesn’t recognize their achievements. If a teacher helps her 8th grade students who read at a 2nd grade level read at a 6th grade level within a year, the teacher is still punished that her students didn’t pass at the 8th grade level. That is what our system is geared to accept. The system doesn’t reward progress and in my book that is amazing achievement. This is a real life example I witnessed. I worked at a school where 8th graders read at a 2nd grade level and when we helped increased their reading levels this wasn’t seen as a success because the students still were considered failures. The students worked so hard only for that achievement to be taken away. That is what teachers go through. Maybe at first these achievements are real and they know they made a difference. After years, they don’t see these as achievements, because every year they are treated like this isn’t success. Educators are accessed by a flawed system so it is not surprising we don’t meet the standards. With a PLN we are supported, praised, and inspired. We feed off others’ ideas and energy. We find a group who wants to see change. That is why I think we are the educator leaders and we have the ability and energy to create change.

      To answer your second question, I think we often don’t want to hurt the members of our PLN or be placed in a negative light. This isn’t always the case and perhaps happens 10 % of the time, but I have noticed this type of situation does occur. Sometimes our PLN frowns upon those who they see as “marketing” themselves or “promoting” themselves. However, we have to try to wrestle education from those who are in charge of the education system, politicians, business leaders, and religious leaders. They continuously market themselves and they spread their ideas and slogans. We have a meaningful message. This message for real change makes us quite different than marketers and politicians. However, I read so many blog posts and have received several messages where people stop posting or take a break because someone told them to stop promoting themselves. We should be supporting each other not chastising others for their tenacity and passion to make a message viral. We blog, conduct webinars, moderate discussions, spearhead projects, conduct workshops, create wikis, and more for free. I don’t see how promoting free stuff to help others is the same thing. However, too many people want to hamper other innovators instead of stepping up and placing that energy to support education reform. This is one problem I see but I don’t know the scope of how much this hampers those who look up to the PLN as a bit of a security blanket. I fall under the umbrella where I certainly try to offend the least amount of people. It is a losing battle.

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 14, 2010, 8:21 pm
  4. Shelly, what a great post.

    I can remember playing in a cardboard box as a kid–with my older brother, whom I adored. He’d tell stories, we’d fly through space and I lived with him his science fiction fantasies, watching him draw gazillions of pictures of the battles. I understood, in a way I’m not sure my other siblings did, when he enlisted in the Marines. Playing in that box helped define who both of us are as adults, I believe. (I read science fiction voraciously in middle school and through my 30’s.)

    Recently I had a friend say, in an online course we are taking, “Today I feel strongly that I have a crucial role to play in the continuing development of an effective, responsive, and technologically sound teaching and learning environment in my building. I may not know every facet of technology, but I know the importance of merging today’s technology with our curriculum to better prepare and engage our learners and teachers. Because of my learning experience here, I can encourage those new to integrating technology and enrich the learning and teaching of those with experience and motivation. I believe I can change mindsets and open new doors for educators who will then begin to change the way our students learn and see the world.”

    “I believe I can change mindsets,” she says. She’s in her fourth year teaching. How do we build that confidence, that belief system in our friends and colleagues?

    {Adam and Kirsten, in a previous paragraph in the same post, she also said, “I began to bring into practice my understanding of what it means to be a different kind of thinker. I realized that like me, my students needed to know that someone understood that trying to exist in an environment not suited to them was a struggle and they needed tools to be able to reach their potential while locked in a box. At some point I made the decision that all of my students had something of value to offer and that each one had a unique perspective that was just as valid as their classmates’. I made the decision that we would have conversations about this very subject and we would have a foundation of honesty and trust. ”

    Am I lucky, or what, to have her as a critical friend?}

    And there’s that box analogy one more time, too…


    Posted by Paula White | June 14, 2010, 3:06 pm
  5. Paula,

    I think this is a very important question that you have asked, “How do we build that confidence, that belief system in our friends and colleagues?” I think PLNs are the key, especially in the early years when teachers hold idealistic views where the system has yet to beat them down. However, I think we learn so much about developing a PLN which is important, but we rarely read how to be a productive member of a PLN or a supporter or what roles are needed and should be played. Tribes by Seth Godin is a great starting point to know about these roles. Perhaps, this is a topic and question we should tackle soon. If we find answers we can begin to implement them and reflect on what contribution we are making to our PLN.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 14, 2010, 8:26 pm
  6. You ask some great questions in here, Shelly. I wake up every morning wondering, “Can curiosity survive education?”

    I think you are right to target the leadership of the school. When administrators become pushers of real innovation (not just cosmetic innovation like a smart board for smart board sake) there seems to be a growth throughout the school. Teachers learn to let go a little bit and try something new. Unfortunately, I feel most administrators do not have the support, encouragement, and/or perhaps vision to inspire change.

    Paradoxically, the education system as it is today, with its hyper focus on improving test scores (ie “performance”), is not conducive to learning — for students, teachers, or administrators. Until someone gets their head around the idea that constructing knowledge is messy & non-linear, I fear it may be a while before kids are allowed to transform boxes.

    Great post. I look forward to more. Cheers.

    Posted by Jason Flom | June 15, 2010, 12:43 am
    • Hi Jason,

      I truly believe we have to change the way students are assessed. Standardized testing is definitely one of the reasons we are keeping students in boxes. We teach them one answer works and they have repercussions if they don’t have this answer. In the real world we know that being able to find multiple solutions works best. We know that having the time to examine and analyze a problem and collaborate on possible solutions works best. However , standardized testing doesn’t allow for any of these necessary skills. Unfortunately, so many understand this but for decades standardized testing continues to plague education systems around the world. It would be interesting to find ways to rid our schools of them.

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 15, 2010, 4:05 pm
    • Assuming you were had a mainstream education, doesn’t you opening question answer itself?

      Posted by Rick Ashby | June 16, 2010, 9:41 am
  7. I’ve just been looking through an old photo album and came across a picture of me at age three. We had just gotten a television, our first, but instead of watching the tv I was playing in and with the box. I remember taking my now 16-year-old son on rides at a fair when he was three or four. While other kids were relishing going around and around he was watching the gears and trying to figure out how the ride worked.

    Schools damage kids by trying to steer their curiosity to focus on what we — society, teachers — feel is important. Instead, we need to provide the materials to let that curiosity roam free.

    Technology may be one answer, but not the way it is used in schools today. Instead of letting it be a window to the world we restrict access. Instead of letting kids figure out how to use technology that interests them we try to teach them the technology we believe to be useful for channeling their focus where we want it to be.

    The question I ask myself when I teach, and the question I have not yet found a satisfactory answer for, is how can I let go and let the students take me where they want to go instead of struggling to take them where I am told I must?

    I don’t think school is the problem. Children need places to be safe, to get fed and to access technology and the boxes it comes in.

    The problem is curriculum, the conceit that we can force children to learn what we say is important in a particular sequence that may or may not make sense to us. It certainly does not make sense to the child.

    Children are eager to learn, so much so that most tolerate school even though it diminishes that eagerness almost every day.

    Posted by Deven Black | June 15, 2010, 9:27 am
  8. Deven,

    Thank you for your passionate statement. You always get me to think and on fire so please excuse my long reply. Your replies just spark so much emotion. I really appreciate your question, “The question I ask myself when I teach, and the question I have not yet found a satisfactory answer for, is how can I let go and let the students take me where they want to go instead of struggling to take them where I am told I must?”

    This is the dichotomy in schools and the challenge. I think this is an important question we must answer to get buy-in. This is especially troubling when many teachers do not believe in taking them to that point they must. “Must” implies force and that is the problem that the school systems try to force teachers and students to attain goals that they don’t really assess. In general, I have read some standards and objectives that supported critical thinking, but how do our state tests assess this? I have read some standards and objectives that support exploration, research, and evaluation but how do our state tests assess this? The problem is they don’t and teachers are left to wonder if they teach the curriculum and choose the standards they think students should strive for or should they teach to the test. In some school districts, the curriculum is one of the main problems. However, I have seen standards and goals I agree that students should aim to achieve.

    The main problem I see is high-stakes testing. Testing results are what determine our future and our student’s future. We are judged by the scores and that is the language that talks and makes decisions. Depending what scores our students make determines how our district leaders who never stepped in our classroom determine if we are good teachers. Depending on what scores our students make determines how politicians, parents, and the media evaluate if we are good teachers. Now it determines our school funding, how much we get paid, and what and who we teach the next year. This is why teachers teach to the test, because in this type of system it is easier to conform and make sure kids pass than to keep fighting year after year. I’ve seen some great teachers get burnt out this year. They were incredible mentors but they don’t want to be part of the school system anymore.

    The saddest part is what these test results determine for our students. They determine if they get scholarships and in many cases the lowest achieving students come from the poorest families. If they don’t receive these scholarships then they can’t afford college. The test results determine if students pass to the next level. They determine which classes they have access to, what colleges they get accepted to, if they are taught by experienced teachers, and what privileges they receive in school. If a student fails and hates school then they are forced to stay for more grueling hours in either their summers or before and after school. In some cases, I have found these students have learning needs, but still forced to take standardized tests. The test results determine if their schools which are already the worst in the country are provided funds not to receive technology but to receive air conditioning and enough staff. In three of my Master’s classes I had different teachers tell me their schools in the US could not even afford toilet paper. The parents would provide this for their children or they would ration the toilet paper. I visited a DODS school and they had a speech pathologist, a counselor, a psychologist, a special education teacher, a technology specialist, a nurse, and an English language teacher. I cried. Every teacher I met I told they were fortunate and so were their students. I cried because in Texas I spent a semester doing a reading program for a middle school with the lowest reading levels in the state. They didn’t have any of these positions and they needed them. The special education students were placed in general education classes as were the ESL students.

    I don’t propose we get rid of schools, but I do believe the way we “school” our children has to change starting with the standardized tests. Politicians and society pay too much attention to the scores and rarely pay attention to the fact that some of the worst schools in the country where the students achieve the least are in some of the worst conditions. These aren’t schools that are safe, nourish the students in healthy ways, or provide them with technology. In some of these schools the students don’t want to go because they are bullied and there is not enough staff to handle the gang problems. It makes me ill to believe some statesman who more than likely went to the best schools in the country and not any of these schools will look at the test scores and decide the faith of that school. It makes me ill to believe the media would rather make stories of teachers getting fired viral than to deal with the issue of the condition of the worst schools in our country. I went to these schools and so did my cousins and parents and their parents. It is sad that the same schools with the lowest achieving scores have existed for generations in my family. It is sad that this is the same for many of my family’s friends. It is sad that my family members for generations seem to continue failing at these schools and are stuck in cycles. No, I don’t propose we get rid of schools but I do propose we revolutionize them. I propose a better curriculum and getting rid of high-stakes tests and how we fund our schools. There are many things we have to change to improve schools. I just think we need to step up and finally change them because I don’t want to have to see the same students stuck in these cycles of poverty and failing at the same schools generation after generation.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 15, 2010, 4:49 pm
    • If I cause you to think, Shelley, it is only because you have done that for me first. I look forward to meeting you face-to-face sometime because I am positive the conversation would be intense, impassioned and interesting.

      I feel the same as you, that schools tests fail to live up to the mandate to educate the whole child and help the child develop critical thinking, Even the tests that do a better job of that still inspire teachers under performance pressure to teach test-taking tricks rather than thinking skills. This is not the fault of the teacher. It is the fault of a system run by non-teachers who understand or seem to care little about how children learn.

      Is it any wonder that when schools are run by businessmen or politicians who cater to them they function more like factories than learning communities? Only businessmen or business-dependent politicians could justify the criminal neglect of the education needs of poverty-stricken communities and they do so, implicitly if not explicitly, by calling the incoming minds inferior or defective and not up to the standards the education factory demands.

      I am surely not the only one who has noticed the discrepancy in schools and schooling between the ruling class and the rest of us corresponds to the ever-growing discrepancy in income between the ruling class and the rest of us. This is no accident.

      Despite all the platitudes and patronization, the powers of this society not only don’t want well-educated poor people, they fear them. Better to keep them illiterate, ignorant and economically immobile. Anything else threatens the stability of those at the top.

      Posted by Deven Black | June 15, 2010, 10:02 pm
  9. Shelly,

    I like the sentiment of your post. I tweeted a number of quotes from it, in fact. I loved your clever literary use of transferring from one box of pure imagination to the imprisoning box of school walls. It reminded me of a shocking quote I’ve heard attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. “Public school is 12 years long because that’s how long it takes to break a child’s spirit.”


    However, I’ve also heard it said that in our society “the scientific method is the new God.” This seems true. This is the reasoning behind the universally despised standardized tests (do we know ANYONE who is says, “Wow! Isn’t it great how well these NCLB tests are working out!?!”). We need to measure and quantify the progress and current knowledge of our students, because that is just how things if we want to be “scientific.”

    Thus, without throwing out the scientific method, and thus our society, which ironically has lead to the advent of most resources mentioned that teachers must utilize to spread seeds of change, what options are we left with?

    I believe the answer is the solution to most of life’s problems: compromise.

    Yes, sadly, we must keep the tests. However, our challenge is to improve them. This is already happening, albeit very slowly. The addition of essays is a relatively new. Surely a step in the right direction compared to the previous decade’s tests with ONLY multiple choice tests, right? We must push to make the tests measurements of things that COUNT (all teachers know the difference between merely “test prep skills” and quality learning).

    Also, we must transform our test preparatory lessons (which, like it or not, are a must in most public schools) into fun, interesting, rich, dynamic, empowering, QUALITY lessons that teach necessary test prep skills AT THE SAME TIME. This is the challenge of the new generation of teachers.

    Of course we can do it! I know because myself and a few colleagues do it almost everyday in class. I can tell you are passionate about education too, so I’m sure you do it as well.

    I am new to blogging (started two weeks ago) but I look forward to reading and responding to the thoughts of you and your subscribers as we all learn to fix our cardboardbox-less school system TOGETHER.

    Posted by enpsteacher | August 22, 2010, 9:53 am
  10. Thanks for your well thought out and interesting comments (found at, Shelly. I especially like the idea of measuring a success in the classroom by the amount of progress made, as opposed to hitting a target score. From what I have heard about Obama’s Race to the Top that is what the new focus of American standardized tests will be. I hope that is true.

    It’s clear that we both agree that the world is too diverse of a place for anything standardized. One size does NOT fit all in education.

    When you talked about “the students who needed accountability years ago” you accurately described the situation of my students at East Newark Public School (ENPS). ENPS is a low-income, urban school district where nearly every student arrives as an English language learner, some without any previous education experience, and then he or she moves back out of the district after only a few years. How could my students possibly compete with teachers in my wife’s school where students have been prepped for the best high schools in New Jersey since birth, with a separate, private tutor for each subject in school!? Yet we both take the same NCLB test and are required to hit the same score. Therefore, I certainly agree that focusing on improvement rather than an arbitrary score especially important.

    In reality, what more can we ask of our students other than to do their best?

    So again, I agree when you say we need reform. However, the reform you are looking for seems to be more like a storming of the educational Bastille. As a history teacher I admire the bravery and conviction of the American and French revolutionaries, but they succeeded only because revolt was their last resort. I suppose the biggest difference between you and I is that you seem to believe all other options have been exhausted.

    Regardless of our minor differences of how to get reform, I respect and admire your ideas/ideals. I look forward to reading your future posts and watching the implementation of your educational call to arms.

    Posted by enpsteacher | August 22, 2010, 10:08 am
  11. OK, so back to HOW? I’m a new principal in an old yet fairly progressive K – 6 school. I believe in student-centered learning, teachers using the best avaialble tools for differentiation (which might involve computers).

    I think one leverage point I have is class structures. Let me explain – a typical elementary school structure is 1 teacher with 25ish kids of the same age or maybe a split class (30 is max for 4-7 here). Next door you have another 1 teacher with another 3oish kids. Teaher see each other at lunch and after school, and might share some ideas. If we were to create schools from scratch, would we intentionally do this???

    What else would you do?

    3 teachers and an EA or 2 in 3-4 adjacent rooms responsible for 80-90 kids in 3 or 4 different grades. I’m not talking about “podding” or middle-school type models where one teacher does math, another does reading etc.

    I want the teachers working together to help guide kids personally through essential skills across the curriculum.

    I need to harness the power of the PLN to make this a reality (or something like it that the PLN can make even better)

    Posted by Kyle | January 28, 2011, 3:52 am


  1. Pingback: Undoing the Damage of High-Stakes Testing « Cooperative Catalyst - June 22, 2010

  2. Pingback: What You May Have Missed in June | Teacher Reboot Camp - July 5, 2010

  3. Pingback: Children and Cardboard Boxes | Teacher Reboot Camp - August 20, 2010

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,103 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: