you're reading...
Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, School Stories

Tour Of Our Lives

Last week 37 educators from 10 states and 4 countries gathered at the headquarters of Project Reach and Fertile Grounds in Manhattan to begin the Institute for Democratic Education in America’s (IDEA’s) first ever Innovation School tour.

After receiving our Metrocards (this was an all subway all the time tour), and a quick chance to get to know each other, we were off to do what we came to do: see four innovative, breakthrough schools, each with different histories, instructional models and student populations. (Monday: NYC iSchoolThe Green School; Tuesday: Urban AcademyCalhoun School).  We were especially interested in the culture and climate of each school–each one was considered “successful” and was popular with its students and parents.  But what made each one different?  What made their cultures coherent and powerful?  What lessons could we learn from seeing them to take back to our own schools and our own work?

After two days of intense, on-the-ground classroom visiting, stairwell climbing, principal-question-asking, student discussions, processing with each other on the subway and at every meal and late into the night, here were some of the things we learned, or decided we were going to think about more…

  • Schools that work well put love at the center. On this tour we were blessed to have a delegation of school leaders from Nuestra Escuela, in Puerto Rico, a school for students who have disengaged from education or have been rejected by conventional schools.  “This is a school founded on love,” says the school’s co-director, Justo  Mendez Aramburu.  Amid much talk about the accountability environments of New York City and the Department of Education, the schools that we saw that truly seemed coherent, were educating students to use their minds confidently and well, and were creating challenging and supportive environments for everyone in their community, had a message of love at their center.“We are like a family here,” said Ann Cook, legendary director of Urban Academy.  “Everyone knows everyone else,” said a student tour guide at the Calhoun School.  “We don’t have to force kids to talk to each other, said, Alisa Berger, Executive Director of the NYC iSchool.  “We value our time together in person so much everyone wants to be present.” In a harsh accountability world where prioritizing love and connection can seem like an extra we can’t afford, the truly breakthrough schools we saw understand that we learn from people we love and trust, and that real education doesn’t happen without these things.  We found ourselves thinking about how to realign policy at our schools to reflect this.

  • There is nothing like getting out of your own building to see other schools. In spite of our best intentions, many of us are profoundly isolated and trapped in our own all-consuming educational settings.  Our buildings, our classrooms, our staffs, gobble  up all the oxygen in the room and make it hard for us to be the cosmopolitan, far-thinking educators we want to be.  Being out on an innovation school tour, even for two days, can be transforming.  Some of our participants said, “We saw things we never thought of, or didn’t think were possible.”  “This re-engaged me to commit to doing the things I want to do in my school.” There is nothing so empowering as seeing how other educators, just like you, are actually doing some of the things you want to do, or try, and having an opportunity to ask them how they did it.  This alone can reshape one’s professional world.
  • Innovative school leaders have realistic, uncompromising attitudes about doing brave things. (See key learnings below.)
  • “This was the best professional development of my life.” In a world where so much of teacher professional development is drive-by and top-down, this was an experiential, somewhat unconstructed learning opportunity.  The visits were not over-scripted or over-determined, things happened unexpectedly, people were trusted to figure out what to do for themselves and how to make the group come together as powerful learners.  Although we didn’t plan it this way, holding on to some of our unscripted informality, and trusting the learners in the group to co-create the learning, was one of the best parts of the tour.  Trusting the learners to co-create the learning.  That was one of the biggest themes of our watching, wondering, thinking and reflecting during our two days.

  • Trying to do innovative work in schools requires that you get together with other people  who are also struggling and dreaming. Many of us came to the tour hesitant, maybe a little bit skeptical, uncertain if this would be worth our time.  Many of us are beaten down and made smaller by the conditions of our work and a pervasive cynicism about transforming the sector.  Simply spending two days with other educators who are all interested in learning new things together, who dream big together, was intensely inspiring and meaningful.   By going through this experience together, we were strengthened in our resolve and left with real ideas about how to create better schools.  You can’t do that on your own as effectively, and you need to get together with other likeminded folks who can help you learn new things.

  • Every discouraged educator needs to go out on an innovation tour to remind themselves what can be done in schools, how education can be transforming for children and adults–why they entered the work. See above.  Why did we get into this work?  Why do we keep doing it?  Seeing schools that really are successful in the conventional sense, and also innovative and not like everyone else, inspires us to do better.
  • We are very bad at carrying the lessons of innovation and best practice out into our larger professional world. In many of the breakthrough, innovative schools we visited during the two days we found ourselves wondering, why aren’t these lessons of best practice widely disseminated?  Why aren’t they copied in more schools and more educational settings?  As educators we are often isolated from each other and have underdeveloped means of learning from each other.  Innovation tours are one way to begin to do this.
  • Schools that are engaged in best practice want to get their messages out to the world, and want to engage in dialog about how they could be better. Some of us were concerned that the schools we were visiting would feel we were a burden, and couldn’t handle 37 of us invading their schools for half a day.  To the contrary, what we discovered was incredible enthusiasm for our visit, a desire to discuss how each school was struggling and trying to get better at, a desire for colleagueship and knowledge-sharing.  Even the schools that are at the top of their game are always trying to get better and learn what they can to improve their practice.  “We want you to be very critical of us,” said Kenny McLaughlin, Assistant Director of The Green School in Brooklyn.  We were heartened by the frankness of the dialog and how much school leaders saw us as partners.

  • There need to be many more opportunities like this for all educators. Is there a tour to be created in your area?  From whom would you like to learn?  Who could learn from  you?  How can we create more opportunities for educators to work together and learn more powerfully from each other?  If you want to participate in one of IDEA’s innovation tours, go here.  If you were on the tour and want to talk some more about it, comment below.  If you have some things IDEA could learn from you about doing the tours, tell IDEA about it.  If you want your school to be involved in a tour, contact IDEA.

The message of love, and the message of action, was at the heart of our experience together.  You must feel connected to act, and to act you must be connected.   These tours may help us begin.


NYC iSchool: “Knowing when you know something is the key 21st century skill,” said Executive Director Alisa Berger about their innovative, technology-enriched experiential high school where all  students are engaged in 7-week-long projects connected to real events in NYC.

The Green School, Brooklyn“Sustainable living on the earth is not a curriculum subject but about a whole way of living and learning, and that’s what we’re teaching,” said Principal Karali Pitzele.

Urban Academy: “The thing kids learn here is how to make an argument and how to understand multiple perspectives on a problem,” said director Ann Cook about their discussion-based curriculum for kids who have disengaged from other educational environments.

Calhoun School: Longtime Progressive school on the upper West Side of Manhattan stresses three critical approaches to learning:  start with the student, we learn best by doing, and the process of education is not linear.   Generations of students have lived and learned at Calhoun, many of whom come back to teach there, or send their own children to school there…

Other observations:

  • Innovative school leaders have courage. Legendary school leader Ann Cook, long time director of Urban Academy, noted that being an innovator is, “all about creative non-compliance.”  “I don’t see any police around here checking on how student’s time is spent,” she said, urging one educator who protested “this can’t be done in my school,” as they talked about Urban’s college-like schedules for students.  The leaders we met had a clear-sighted view of the world they’re actually in, “we do all the Regents exam preparation online so we don’t waste our time with that instructionally,” said Alisa Berger, director of the NYC iSchool.  These leaders make time for what they think is important.  At the iSchool, exam prep doesn’t rule their experiential, social technology enriched instruction.  “It’s not about the technology, it’s about rethinking how learning actually happens,” said Berger.  These leaders have an attitude about doing what they think is the right thing to do, and not letting fear of the tests, or anxiety about risk taking, rule their lives.  “Design time around what you want to teach, not the other way around,” said Ann Cook.
  • Students are treated as serious intellectuals. For these schools, this doesn’t mean giving them more low-level tests and pushing them to remember more, but engaging in serious, important tasks like electronically interviewing other teenagers from around the world about their attitudes towards 9/11 and creating an installation at Ground Zero, or creating a project in which students from around the world interview each other about being sixteen.   At Urban Academy, students must independently read books and discuss them with New York-based intellectuals, professors and artists to demonstrate intellectual competence.  At The Green School, students solved the problem of “floating trash” around the neighborhood as requested by the Sanitation Department.  Learning is real, and connected to real outcomes, and the attitude is that everyone is going to grow intellectually, including teachers and school staff, as they engage in serious, interesting problems.
  • Teachers are taught how to do the work better and better. At the best schools, like Urban Academy, there is a 7-step “method” for teaching inquiry-based instruction and everyone in the building understands it and uses it.  On the other hand, there is not a compliance-model about instructional design.  Teachers exercise great authority and control in terms of what they are going to teach and what materials and experiences to use.  “It’s  loosey goosey and also a tight ship,” says Ann Cook.

This is cross posted at Pedagogies of Abundance.  I participated in this tour, and am on the board of IDEA.


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


20 thoughts on “Tour Of Our Lives

  1. Kirsten,

    I have to say that this post sent shivers up and down my spine. This is such a great idea. Although you were immersed in the tour, I love how you are able to step back from the experience and reflect (and report) on the big picture.

    Love and action. This is really what you are all about!

    I’m sitting here wondering where in our province we would visit if we wanted to plan such a tour. I’m now on a mission to find out. Thanks for taking the time to write such a powerful post!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 11, 2011, 7:08 pm
  2. Stephen, Thank you for responding, and it really was a life-shaping experience, even if you’ve been in hundreds of schools and “see” them for a living.

    So what would we learn from visiting in your province if a group of educators came? At your school? What are you especially proud of? What are you interested in engaging in dialog about improving?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 11, 2011, 8:27 pm
  3. It’s as the students, parents and staff at our school say “it’s the people who make the difference”. No matter what pedagogical, systemic, organizational and or radical practices were in place or being explored each school recognized the importance, complexity and simplicity of this notion. Kirsten has so eloquently captured our experience, and what we witnessed. In the end we are people first, all 4 schools made it a point to relate to each other on this level, when this happens changing inner landscapes becomes possible along with learning that touches the spirit, nourishes the soul, challenges the mind and lifts the heart.

    Thank you Kirsten for this amazing and and important post, how can anyone read it and not come way inspired? I see a MA, NH tour in the future.

    Posted by Peter Berg | April 12, 2011, 4:00 pm
  4. Peter, Thanks so much for the comment, and your colleagueship and activism in the world, at your own school, at IDEA. You challenged me and lifted me up on this tour. I can’t wait to see you at Antioch in a couple of weeks.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 13, 2011, 12:21 pm
  5. Kirsten:

    Thanks to summarize the experience so wonderful that we live together. It was a pleasure to meet you and look forward to welcoming you here in Puerto Rico. It was an honor to meet so many good people dedicated to improving education.

    Un abrazo

    Posted by Siri Rolon | April 15, 2011, 9:29 am
  6. Hey Kirsten,

    Reading your review really makes me want to attend the next tour! A few questions:

    1. In schools and classrooms I’ve seen a tendency to put our best face forward when our practice is exposed to the public. This means sharing only our best students’ work with fellow teachers, or strictly enforcing uniform policies during a visit from district personnel, I’m sure yall know the deal.

    So I’m wondering, despite the success of these schools, were they willing to be open and vulnerable about the challenges they struggle most with? Or were the conversations all focused on the positive things happening in these buildings? (not that that would be a bad thing)

    2. Did any of the educators who came along for the trip get school/district money to pay their fee, and were any of them able to count this as a professional development experience?

    3. TEST SCORES! Hate them or hate them, they are what is used to gauge success by the people in power. How successful are these innovative schools by state standards?

    Thanks for lunch today Kirsten, and all of your kind words expressing faith in my future. It’s very moving to be seen in such a positive light by someone as intelligent/caring/successful as yourself!


    Posted by Corey Brooks | April 15, 2011, 8:36 pm
    • Corey, Great questions. As always. (You are tough dude.) I like how you put it to Bill Ayers about Progressives and Michelle Rhee.

      1. These tours were pretty unscripted. The schools didn’t do a lot of prep for our visit, and we were randomly walking around classrooms. Principals, teachers, talked a lot about what they struggle with, even though they’re considered successful–ongoing funding, hostile authorizing environments, difficulty staying with the mission under unrelenting pressure for test scores. They wanted us to be critical friends.

      2. Several of the educators’ districts paid for them to attend. They were to go back and teach what they had learned to their colleagues.

      3. Test scores. Always important. NYC iSchool has great ones. They are one of the darlings of the NYC Department and former Chancellor Klein. They do all their Regents prep online so test preparation does not interfere with their project-based learning. Green School is struggling with test scores. This has affected everything about their program. Urban Academy is part of a consortium of 50 schools in NY state that has uses extensive, highly-detailed performance criteria for graduation rather than the Regents. This has been controversial since the mid-1980s. The school is on the front lines fighting this battle. Since their kids do so well in their lives they are developing a huge portfolio of evidence about the success of their evaluation methods. Calhoun School is private and comes with a very hefty tuition price tag–Manhattan prices. Their accountability is in word of mouth, and long-term impact on learners. Satisfied customers, as it were, and SAT scores that allow admission to highly-selective colleges.

      Did we talk about test scores with school leaders? Absolutely. Did they dominate the tour? No. That was part of the innovation. That they did not.

      Thanks for commenting here. Please come back and kick our asses,


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 18, 2011, 9:44 am
      • Hey Kirsten,

        The day I kick your Harvard Doctorate-having ass in a discussion around education is the day the O’s win the AL East. It’s obvious in our conversations that issues I am struggling to understand already exist as well connected and clarified categories in your mind.

        If I want to advocate for such tours in the future I’ll want to be prepared for the counterarguments, right?! Thanks for the response, look forward to seeing you again sometime soon,


        Posted by Corey Brooks | April 18, 2011, 3:05 pm
    • Corey,

      Anyone who can work a baseball analogy into a blog post rocks in my book 🙂 I wouldn’t sell the O’s short they are doing the right things and truthfully you really never know. Sticking with the baseball analogy and turning in a more serious direction , what are your thoughts on the measure of success in education, in Baseball it seems to be those ever loving (yes I am being sarcastic and refraining from using profanities) Yankees with their 27 world championships. They have won the most yet other teams who have tried to replicate what they do, in the same way they do it have not won nearly as much. Other teams like the Twins do not do it the Yankee way and have had success but not many championships.

      Do we need to redefine success(test scores, portfolios, good human beings) or even what learning is? Do we leave it up to the individuals to define it? Do we not worry about the distribution and access to resources as it relates to success , in the Yankee analogy they have the largest pay role and have won the most individually but there is a collective out there that have used a lot less but had more success.

      What should we emphasis the larger schools that have innovative programs and perhaps more resources, the smaller schools that tend to struggle that are truly innovative but have a hard time sustaining themselves?

      I was on the NYC tour and I agree with all of Kirsten’s points it was interesting to see how each school resolved the test score dilemma. All seemed to except the fact that it is there and either decided to not take part or spend little time thinking about it. My school is the same we take state tests but think little about them and somehow always seem to have “good” scores for whatever it’s worth. The focus of the tour was on the growth of the students.

      I think we did get a genuine snapshot of what happens at these schools on a daily basis. All students and staff were very candid about what they encounter, struggle with and are proud of.

      I’ll root for your O’s just think you could be a Mets fan like me and know the true meaning of suffering 🙂


      Posted by Peter Berg | April 19, 2011, 2:07 pm
      • Hey Peter,

        I appreciate your love for the O’s, though I must reject the notion that being a Mets fan has required more suffering, at least in the past 13 years or so. Since 1997 the Mets have had 2 NLCS appearances and a WS appearance, meanwhile the O’s have not only not made the playoffs once in that period, they haven’t even had a season over .500 in that span!

        The baseball analogy is a fruitful one I think. People created statistics to measure performance long ago, these statistics were deeply flawed measures of individual performance (RBIs are dependent on the performance of your teammates as much as your own for example) but because they became a part of the game everyone seemed to forget that they’re not the truth, they are just a particular measure that somebody made up at some point! Meanwhile the sabermetric movement created much better, more complicated measuring sticks, which were met with hostility by the establishment and older fans. However despite being better, it seems these new measuring sticks are not perfect, they still don’t capture much of the game, and they can be wildly misused and misinterpreted just like the old measuring sticks.

        What do I think of measuring success in education? I think it’s possible to create better tests that are both standardized and can focus on meaningful questions and concepts, that can be embedded in the curriculum in a low stakes way that function as true educative aids. However I think the current measures of success in education are fucked up relics born from the awesome people who brought us the eugenics movement. They look at stupid stuff because it’s the most easily quantifiable, they do a poor job even measuring that which they seem to value, they unfairly favor certain groups of people who have had subtle and not so subtle (paying for Kaplan classes) lifelong training to take these tests, and they’re based on a flawed idea of what intelligence even is. I could go on…

        Here’s one effort to create something better that’s worth checking out,

        Glad to hear you had a great time on the trip, wish I could’ve been there with ya!


        Posted by Corey Brooks | April 20, 2011, 7:47 am
      • One more thought (as I sit here in class ignoring some contrived academic debate), you raised the important issue of what is the end goal we are working towards in education? As Plato would say, what is the good? In baseball that is clearly defined, score more runs than the other team, win games, win the world series.

        In education that’s not clearly defined and no one is talking about it! Is school supposed to foster reflective citizens, to sort students for college readiness, to prepare people for the workforce? Is there even a single end that we should push all students towards or is there room for multiple educational outcomes and not one ideal student?

        Posted by Corey Brooks | April 20, 2011, 10:46 am
      • Yo you are out of my league here guys

        Posted by Kirsten | April 22, 2011, 8:39 am
  7. Would love to have any members of the Coop or fans of the Coop join us at the next tour in Oregon, starting next week. We have a few spots open and a great tour lined up. Cooperative Members Kirsten Olson, Scott Nine and myself will be there.

    Please join us or email to others who might be interested.

    David Loitz

    Posted by dloitz | April 16, 2011, 12:34 pm
  8. Thank for this beautiful post.
    I have recently been asked to speak to large groups about my (Reggio- inspired, public, studio based) work. I boldly have chosen to talk about love, relationship and connection in learning environments, so I am thrilled to see the work in Nuestra Escuala. Often love is omitted once children become middle school age, what a shame. Your post is brimming with hope and possibilities. Thank you.

    Posted by Marla McLean, Atelierista | April 19, 2011, 11:32 am
    • Marla, How can we connect up with you and what you are doing?

      I too am moving increasingly towards talking about what I believe in–the importance of relationship and connection in all aspects of powerful learning. This doesn’t have to be intimacy, but it has to be relationship.

      Let me/us know where you are and what you’re doing.


      Posted by Kirsten | April 22, 2011, 8:32 am
      • Marla is an amazing teacher… a Goddard Grad and great Blogger! Marla I would love to have you join us as a member and to also to talk a few of the other teachers at your school to blog with us too… (I think you know who I talking about!)

        It is so fun when worlds come together!


        Posted by dloitz | April 22, 2011, 12:41 pm
  9. Our community is in search of a new superintendent of public schools. I landed on this site and specifically this post while trying to find some direction how the community should proceed, what criteria to establish, and what to look for in the new person. Kirsten, your posts, all of them on this site, opened completely new horizons. It is not a person but an approach to education we are in search for.

    Posted by Jan Kasal | September 16, 2013, 2:16 am


  1. Pingback: Passion At The Center of New Education Model | Pedagogies of Abundance - September 19, 2011

  2. Pingback: Rethinking Every Assumption « Kirsten Olson - July 16, 2015

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 )

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 4,096 other subscribers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: