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Look Where You Want to Go and Steer in that Direction

|Posted originally on Dreams of Education on June 24, 2011|

I never took drivers ed, but when I was 14, my parents took me to a driver safety course. I remember very little of the night but one thing that stood out was the phrase: “look where you want to go and steer in that direction.” The course instructor was offering solid advice for what to do if you hit a patch of ice and lost control of the car. That advice stuck with me and, as I navigate Colorado winters, is something I practice regularly. As it turns out, this has been good advice for education and life as well. Sometimes you have to not only look at where you want to go, but steer in that direction as well. This is how a blog led to starting a school.

I started Dreams of Education on March 8, 2010. At the time I had filled my Google reader to the brim with post feeds from educators around the world. I was being inspired and fed daily by my world-wide personal learning network and yet in the schools I was in, saw a very different reality of education for kids. I had kept iLearn Technology since 2007 and really enjoyed blogging there. To be honest, it was easy to just write a review on technology tools and how they could be used in the classroom. It was also safe. I didn’t have to reveal too much of myself. But in March of 2010 I couldn’t stay “silent” any longer. I needed a place to dream and invite others to dream with me. I used this blog to look at where I wanted education to go and started steering in that direction. Here I am 478 days later starting a school. It sounds much more neat and tidy and perfectly planned in writing than it is in reality.

During this time last year I had just left a teaching position I really loved. I had to leave for health reasons and to be truthful, I wasn’t completely ready to leave. I loved the students I taught. They energized me and gave me a sense of professional purpose-they needed me. I had just packed up my classroom and handed off my job to another. It was freeing, and terrifying, and exciting, and rotten.

I always felt like a bit of an outsider at the school where I taught. I couldn’t seem to just let the status quo be and was constantly pushing the envelope and questioning why we did everything the way we did. I consistently felt a sense of urgency for change because we were dealing with kids who kept growing and couldn’t wait around for us to get it right next year. I couldn’t accept the ‘good enough’ mentality. I found the place I fit in on Twitter and in an online network of educators from around the world. Here I found other educators who believed that kids deserved better now. Suddenly I wasn’t an outsider but part of a movement in education to make a change. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for the school where I spent the past 7 years. It provided a place for me to grow and interact with other wonderful educators and gave me the freedom to develop my own programs and work with teachers. At the end of the day, we just have different visions for learning. I was willing to push for change, they were comfortable in the routines that they had in place.

Leaving my classroom and my students was hard. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, it felt like summer never ended because come August I wasn’t preparing my classroom and computers for the following year. No re-imaging machines, no bulletin boards, no sending cards over the summer to my students. It was strange. I worked with several area schools on social media, technology integration and professional development. I took home boxed curriculum and dreamed up ways to expand their offering with technology and more engaging activities.

On September 28, 2010 I was working on aligning technology activities to reading curriculum. As is my habit, I was multi-tasking. Listening to Pandora, chiming into #edchat on Twitter, tinkering with new tech sites, and working on the curriculum alignment. As I was working and chatting and listening a song came on that I had never heard before. I scrambled to find a sticky note so that I could write down the artist before the song changed (for the record it was Zee Avi). I sat there amazed that technology had come to the point that it can predict what kind of music I will like based on just one bit of information. Because I was elbow deep in the ridiculousness that is boxed curriculum, I started to wonder why curriculum didn’t look more like Pandora. I threw out the following on Twitter: “What if curriculum looked more like Pandora?” Immediately I started getting retweets and comments like, “say more about that” and “exactly, curriculum should be more customized!”

I couldn’t seem to shake the idea of curriculum looking more like Pandora. For a blogger that means it is time to sit down and write. Over the summer I had gotten into the habit of starting every day with a TED talk or RSA animate video with breakfast. That morning I happened to watch Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. I started wondering if there might not be something to these hunches I was having and wrote the post When Hunches Collide. It has been my most popular post on Dreams of Education to date. In the post I wrote out some thoughts on curriculum, hiring teachers, community involvement in schools, #twitacad, and innovation lab. The post was truly just a collection of unfinished thoughts, a place to get them out of my head. I didn’t know it at the time but September 28 was a “steer in that direction” kind of day.

In the first weeks of December, one of my Twitter PLN @DoremiGirl introduced me to @ianchia. Ian is an app developer in Australia who was working on an app called Send Felicity and was looking for input from educators. Yoon knew that I geeked out about technology, specifically Apple products, and introduced us. Ian and I immediately hit it off. After a handful of fantastic conversations I told Ian about this crazy idea I had to make curriculum look more like Pandora. I wanted to know from a developer standpoint if this crazy idea was feasible to even build. Ian reassured me that it was possible and pointed me to some tools I could use to prototype my idea. Suddenly it seemed like I was surrounded by people who were pouring into helping make my idea a reality. Business minds who were making recommendations, developers who were pointing me toward wireframing tools, educators who would listen to my craziness and reassure me that it was worth pursuing. The Learning Genome was born.

One of the business people I met along the way introduced me to an educator in Denver Public School System. He told me very little about him just that “you should meet, I think you might find some overlaps.” Jason and I set up a time to meet at a local bookstore. I showed up, he did not. Miscommunication in dates/times. That weekend was the COLearning 2.0 conference in Colorado. Several teachers that I used to work with joined me at the conference. A discussion began in the first session about how classrooms could look different. One of my colleagues and I were IMing each other like crazy as the discussion unfolded. A gentleman sitting across the room from us was saying all of the things we were typing back and forth. It was a little creepy, like we had some how tapped into this guy’s brain with our instant messaging and were now controlling his thoughts. After the session, my colleague @matthewquigley went to talk to the gentleman whose mind we had been controlling. As it turns out it was none other than the Jason that I was supposed to meet at the book store. Small world. We talked more about what schools could/should look like. We dreamed together right there in the hallway and made plans to meet the following Monday.

Jason has been developing a new school design. He has re-imagined the school day, year, staffing and financial model. His goal was to open a charter school in DPS based on this model. The problem: he wasn’t exactly sure what learning might look like in this new structure. Light bulb moment. This is why the business associate wanted us to meet. I walked Jason through my Learning Genome prototypes and described my vision for how learning could look different. Synergy. At the conference, Matthew and I mentioned that we had been dreaming for years about what a school could look like and that someday we would like to start a school of our own. We were thinking YEARS down the road. Jason challenged us. Why not now? Jason has quite the educational background and has been involved in 13 school start-ups. He let us know that the 6th month time frame we were staring down was a big task but not impossible. We were intrigued.

Jason met with me in March to sketch out a rough timeline of what it would take to start a school by fall of 2011. It was a lot. Never one to back down from a challenge, I started seriously considering the possibility and even spat out a few blog posts casually mentioning the idea. At the same time, I wrote a post here about Charlotte Mason because I had just completed a day of internship at one of the schools I was working at. The leader of the school pointed some prospective parents to my blog (who happened to know me from my previous teaching position). In addition to seeing my Charlotte Mason post, they saw my “working on starting a school” post. The next day I got a call from two families asking me about the school I was starting. We talked at length about the vision of the school, what it could look like and what it could do for kids. The families asked if we could sit down and talk more about it. On March 29 three incredible families agreed to take on this journey with us. Anastasis Academy was born.

This blog, Dreams of Education, started a school. It let me look at where I wanted to go, leaving it up to me to steer in that direction. Those little hunches that came one blog post at a time turned into big ideas. I think all too often in education we spend so much time looking at where we want to go that we forget the steering in that direction piece. The vision is important but without action it remains just another good idea. We can’t wait for someone else to tackle education. Our students can’t afford to wait for us to get it right in a few years. Their needs are here and require answers now.

It is up to us to look at where we want to go and steer in that direction.

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