WEEKLY MEMO- Read at your leisure, but please read (or Why I Dance)

On Building Human Connections and Engaging with the students with passion and joy (or Why I Dance)

As I was dancing in the stands at yesterday’s truly awesome tournament, with students and families alike laughing at me and younger siblings asking parents, “is that really the principal?”, I found myself reflecting on the question of why I dance.

The truth is, yes, I am something of an actual lunatic and to some extent, I’m always like this and I’ve always been like this–a “DE – FENCE” screaming, embarrassment proof, extrovert. But, there is another truth here as well. A primary part of our jobs as educators is to model and actually create joy, passion, and engagement. We are bridges and guideposts crossing the gaps and mapping the pathways between our young people’s lived experiences and the possibilities of a purposeful, whole, healthy adulthood.



Weekly Memo – Internships Matter, Let’s Get Them There

Dear Team,

I wrote this in an email this weekend, but I thought it was worth sharing with everyone. Our students, especially many of those who struggle in various ways, really need this internship experience. They badly need to spend time in a more mature community–experiencing healthy adult interactions. It will do them absolute wonders. Having said this, they desperately need your help figuring out how to get there.

Helping students figure out what they are actually interested is also a very deep form of relationship building. There are a lot of different strategies that can be applied depending on the student and the context, but at its heart this work is about your expressing interest, demonstrating a willingness to listen, and demonstrating to the student that regardless of how they have pushed on you this year, you are going to love them and work hard to find them a pathway to becoming their best selves.

As a side note, the reason that some of the elements of the Big Picture model ultimately are impactful is that they help lay the groundwork for these kinds of conversations and cooperative decisions. Daily circle is a place where you model and students practice talking about what’s important to them. Debriefing pick-me-ups and helping the students think about leadership, communication, and conflict; discussions of what college is like; discussions of what it’s like to have a regular old job; Using videos of real world work, videos of college, videos of Exhibitions and other Big Picture videos to spark discussions, etc.–all these are tools for bridging the distance between a young person’s lived experience and what is possible for that young person.
We validate our work in our unwillingness to give up on our students and our unfailing expectation that each of them will succeed through real world learning in achieving our most important goals for their education. As articulated by Big Picture Learning Founder Dennis Littky, we aspire that our students will…
  • be lifelong learners
  • be passionate
  • be ready to take risks
  • be able to problem-solve and think critically
  • be able to look at things differently
  • be able to work independently and with others
  • be creative
  • care and want to give back to their community
  • persevere
  • have integrity and self-respect
  • have moral courage
  • be able to use the world around them well
  • speak well, write well, read well, and work well with numbers
  • truly enjoy their life and their work.

New Project – Weekly Memos

Dear Friends,

I’m starting a new series here in an attempt to capture something I would love to have as a pretty raw piece of school design data. I am hoping this turns out to be interesting and useful for readers as well.

My goal is to share some of the weekly reflections that I send to the staff at Vaux Big Picture High School (@vaux_BPHS),  where I am the founding principal. Most weeks, sometime between Friday afternoon (when I’m really on point) and Sunday evening (when I’m buried and behind), I send out my “weekly memo” in an email to the staff.

The top of the email is a greeting; the middle consists of updates, announcements and general information; and in the final section of the email, I usually try to share some sort of reflective thoughts related to our ongoing work.

I am going to post these reflections to the thread whenever I can. I’ll post them with their actual date so you can the development over the course of the school year. Feel free to let me know what you think @gkuriloff on twitter.


To learn more about Vaux:

We’ve had a fair amount of press this year which you can read at your leisure to learn more about our work. I also encourage you to visit the national Big Picture Learning site (@bigpiclearning).

Making Meaning Out of It All: The Work of Re-connecting the Disconnected with Love (#newarkontherise)

Several weeks ago, the week before break, I had the pleasure of attending GradNation with a group of youth leaders from Newark Leadership Academy and I learned about or at least was reminded of a great educational truth.

GradNation is a national project sponsored by Washington D.C. based, America’s Promise Alliance. They are convening 100 conferences and ongoing work streams across the nation to focus system-level attention on young people who are often called disconnected or “opportunity” youth. In Newark, NJ, we have nearly 4,000 young people that are high-school-age but have not attained a diploma and are not actively engaged in high school. Nationally, there are roughly 6.7 million of these same young people (this number, drawn from Belfield, Levin, and Rosen (2012), includes young people up to age 24, a slightly larger population than the 5.6 million estimate I heard at GradNation). Belfield et al estimate the cost to our national economy at 1.56 trillion dollars in taxpayer burden alone: 

The economic potential of an opportunity youth cohort is very large. Considered over the full lifetime of
a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to
$1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion. These costs ‘roll over’ each
year because each year brings a new cohort of opportunity youth.

GradNation Newark was a one day conference that brought together dozens of service providers from across the city along with groups of young people from YouthBuild Newark, FastTrack Academy, and our school, Newark Leadership Academy, as well as young people representing the Newark Trust’s youth leadership program, and Project RISE. These organizations, schools, and providers are working ferociously, although largely without coordination, to reverse a steadily growing dropout crisis.

The youth panel, particularly, was deeply compelling. What was amazing about the youth panel at GradNation, though, was that you didn’t have to listen particularly hard to get the point. Up and down the row, each of them told us how they had not had the love and unconditional support they needed to succeed in school. When the moderator asked what brought them back and made it possible to re-engage, they were equally unanimous. Every single young person said that in their current program there was at least one and sometimes even just one adult who cared about them, believed in their potential, and worked through all of their challenges to get to know the real young person inside. Someone who believed in them. Someone who cared about their future. Someone who loves them still.

That’s it. That’s the BIG SECRET. LOVE. LOVE!!!!! 

I’m not afraid of love.

A former principal who worked for me in Philly told me that I shouldn’t tell my students that I love them because they have been abandoned so many times before and I am just going to break their hearts again. I disagree more than I could possibly capture here.

One of the easiest and most important things I can give is love.

Dennis, one of two NLA students on the panel, didn’t make it sound that hard. He talked about how much it matters to him that every morning, when he comes through the door, I am happy to see him. This is the secret, the hidden educational need, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to deliver: show I’m happy when I really am happy. I am fired up when Dennis comes through the door. I’m interested in him, his successes, his challenges, and all the fun, hard, sad, triumphant craziness that comes in between.

And it’s not just Dennis. It’s not just the currently talkative, or just the currently hardworking students I’m excited to see. The ones who make me crazy today–my angry, traumatized, and escalated young people–are going to be healthy some day if we, the adults who are serving them and caring about them, just stick with them. Their experiences will add depth and wisdom to our own and, as I tell the young people all the time, we will ALL be stronger for our commitment to each other.

I believe that we are truly blessed to make our living in a human, social organization that both connects us to those around us and encourages us to learn from each other. We are lucky to have an extended family as complex, intricate, and beautiful as ours.

Here’s the ask

Briana Buie, an NLA student attending the event with me, stood up during the Q&A with my colleague and friend Chekemma Thomas (@chekemma), our keynote speaker and the CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). Briana told the assemblage that is was our “responsibility to break down the walls” our young people have built to protect themselves. “Brick-by-brick, if necessary,” she said.

It’s our responsibility to break through to our young people and help them transform. Not to provide some learning experiences should a young person happen to be interested, but to break down the wall they themselves have created and connect to the real young people inside.

Even at NLA I frequently hear that everything would be easier if only “all our young people really wanted to be here. IF they really chose this.”

It is certainly true that one of the keys to success in a school like ours is free choice, but Briana suggests to us that we maybe shouldn’t make it such an easy choice for our young people to be disengaged. She is putting the responsibility on the broad universe of adults who fill up her world. Briana knows that we have already failed her and her peers many times before our young people really begin to inhabit the labels we have given them.

We may call them disconnected and we may want to believe that this is a choice that they make, but the honest truth of the matter is that at every step of the way, we adults have profoundly failed. More than five and a half million young people, nearly 4,000 in Newark, didn’t wake up one day and say “I hope I end up disconnected from school and from meaningful connection to whole, healthy adults.” They also didn’t wake up hoping to spend time in institutions that demeaned them, categorized them, judged them, and actively pushed them out.

We are obviously hoping to be different. Kaila, our second NLA youth panel member, said that our community building work (which we call Mental Toughness in the YouthBuild way): “taught me that there should be no failure, we should let no one fall.” If we taught her that, we better believe it ourselves.

Youth panelist after youth panelist at GradNation was incredibly clear, it only took one caring adult–one adult who saw past all of their “stuff”, one adult who refused to be pushed away, one adult who worked away at that wall, brick by brick, until that adult was face to face with a beautiful, courageous, gifted, traumatized, young person. Having named this enormous responsibility, I want to go back to what Dennis said, it’s not that hard to be happy to see them when they come through the door. It’s not that much of an ask for me to be my best self for my young people. It’s not that much of an ask for any of us–Let’s be a community of love.


A short history of the field of design theory and methods courtesy of Beckman and Barry (2007)

Beckman and Barry’s (2007) Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking (2007is a great resource for understanding the history and current direction of design theory. The authors describe three broad stages of development that represent a move from design as a top-down process of cause and effect analysis and linear improvement to design as an organic, iterative, and fundamentally democratic process by which communities organize to make meaning together.

This first phase of design theories and methods was focused on optimization and systematic problem solving. Beckman and Barry describe this approach as rooted in “machine thinking” and focused on rigid methods for breaking down complex tasks or operations into discrete problems and solving each one in a logical and linear order. In these practices, designers were often laboratory scientists, studying problems from afar, deconstructing and then reconstructing them for greater perceived effectiveness. Designers believed that their own aesthetic and practical understandings could effectively determine both utility and significance in design processes and methods. This early phase of design practice was premised on the modernist belief in the unifying progress of humanity towards a more ideal society. Designers were seen as heroic figures of the modern world, raising society to a more ideal state (Buchanan, 1998) and designers themselves generally believed that part of their role was providing a unifying vision of progress that would drive society along the path of human improvement (Beckman & Barry, 2007).

This initial understanding of design theory as a process by which a few experts solve the problems of society was strongly repudiated in its second wave. Buchanan (1998), a design theorist and historian, asserts that the modernist “unifying” vision is oppressive as it imposes one definition of utility and significance for all people regardless of culture or context (Beckman & Barry, 2007). Buchanan (1998) writes:

No one possesses all of the knowledge and wisdom required to understand and act responsibly in this world. We need diversity and alternative perspectives to keep alive the ongoing inquiry into ordering, disordering, and reordering that is the central enterprise of human culture. We need the diversity of many personal visions to avoid entrapment in narrow thinking. (p. 16)


Defining Design and Design Thinking

My academic research (and Claire’s as well – @ClaireYates3) over the last few years has focused on the interaction between the literature of design thinking and the literature from the field of education that supports the design and creation of new schools.

Today I am going to start by taking a quick look at the field of what is called Design Thinking. In upcoming posts I am going review a bunch of literature and also do some sorting and aggregating of the field in general.

First, my long and inclusive definition of design thinking:

Design thinking is a way of approaching planning using a non-linear process of learning and experimentation that engages community members and their needs in formulating problems and creating purposeful solutions that are rooted in utility and significance and adapt over time.

The design thinking approach is an iterative process of knowledge building and knowledge using. It is frequently described in four non-linear stages—discovery, creation, modeling, implementation/production (Ackoff, Magidson, & Addison, 2006; Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007). In addition, many authors identify a fifth state focused on organizational learning and evolutionary change although some see this as simply a continuation of the iterative process of learning, creating, learning more, and recreating (Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007; Owen, 2007). (more…)

Philadelphia Local – Some Tools Local Designers Will Find Useful

In my work for Building21 I have been digging through local resources in Philadelphia. The most useful of these resources is The Notebook has been gathering and organizing an enormous amount of useful data on Philly’s schools. Local educators and advocates certainly know this.

1) A Map of the local school catchments, feeder pattern. This should be common knowledge in the city, but for some reason, it is not:  https://webapps.philasd.org/school_finder/

2) From perhaps the most useful resource of all,  the Philadelphia Public School Notebook itself, please see a list of the regional superintendents in Philadelphia and the schools each oversees.

3) A recent edition of the School District of Philadelphia’s Organizational Chart: I got this from an article in the Philadelphia City Paper. Here I am not concerned with the content of the article but on the usefulness of the org chart, which can also be seen below.

School District of Philadelphia Organizational Chart - Winter 2014.