“Ithaka” and my learning journey

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Reflecting on 40 years of teaching which have led me from Paris to Sydney, San Francisco, Mumbai, Beirut, Damascus, and other harbors, I am often brought back to the beautiful metaphor of Ithaka; a poem by Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, based on Homer’s story of Odysseus sailing home again. No matter the challenges encountered along the way, something beyond duality kept him going. Homer’s journey lasted 10 years, but this poem has carried me through 40 years of my teaching journey – and continues to accompany and provide a welcome perspective to my every step.

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
Hope that your journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Lestrygonians and Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon do not be afraid of them:
You’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Lestrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon, you won’t encounter them,
unless you bring them along, inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up, in front of you.

Hope that your journey is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
With what gratitude, what joy,
you come into harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and learn again from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So that you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her, you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine Cavafy

One of the most impactful teachers I ever had – Milty, the importance of being real

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In the spirit of Teacher Appreciation Week, I would like to share unpremeditated students’ voices on the alchemy of learning with a teacher who made a difference.

Throughout his life, Ted Miltenberger, also known as Milty, an English and theatre teacher at the American School of Paris, wove a web of humanity, empathy, passion and rigor that infused all of his work and the performances he guided and facilitated. His love of teaching, his charisma and ingenuity were infectious; he had the gift of channelling his students’ creative energy into a productive “ensemble” where process mattered more than product. 

When the news of Milty’s passing spread through the Facebook alumni pages, a spontaneous outburst of some 200+ postings rose as a poignant tribute to his lifelong impact on students.They reflect unforgotten moments of wit, wisdom, and inspiration, some of which go back to more than thirty years ago.

I have taken the time to compile some of those responses because they struck me as a rare testimony to the importance of being real. Real, as in no disconnect between what Ted believed and what he practiced. This essential quality of authenticity is rarely mentioned in teacher training; it cannot be taught, it comes from within and lies at the very heart of teaching; students recognize it straight away and they remember:

Joanna: Milty, Ted Miltenberger, was like to many others, a most incredible mentor to me in my early theatre days. He taught us to leave our emotional baggage at the door- that we’d then joke about tripping over. He supported our various dreams but then challenged us in really surprising ways…One day we were supposed to dress up like what we wanted to be when we grew up. Kimm: wanted to be a mother, Dennis a soldier, while Milty himself was dressed as the ice cream man. Obviously we’re very touched by the speech Milty made for us. If only we had iphones in 1993 I’d be able to remember what he said. I remember the feeling at least. He’s going to have such a blast in Heaven!

Ania: What an inspiration he was to so many of us!

Kimm: Milty was easily one of the most impactful teachers I ever had. I feel crushed by the news. You are so loved by many. Creative drama is a life-enhancing practice. It reconnects us to that shining life force that resides in all of us, and empowers us to discover and witness our natural sources of power and empathy. In these Drama for Life workshops, we journey through the rich landscape of theatre – playing, improvising, acting – and experiment with a variety of drama techniques that connect us to our endlessly nourishing wells of creativity and spontaneity.

John: We all know great people in our lives, people who were silent mentors or just amazing people. Ted Miltenberger was one of those. He gave us great memories but more importantly…he was a great friend. We learned about more than just what he taught in the classroom.

Michael: He was always such a positive presence around the campus and will forever be remembered and cherished.

Kathleen: Always smiling!

Dane: Milty is the reason I care about the theatre so much.

Sean: You were the first teacher I had on my first day at ASP. I fell in love with your teaching and the school itself instantly. Thank you so much for everything.

Noelle: He was a bright light at ASP his enthusiasm was catching. He will be missed.

Susan: Milty, believe it or not, taught me how to really write.

Kelly: Oh no! John, Rocky, Dan, Bisan, Dahlia… and everyone else who I did theater with… This is so sad. We must find a way to pay tribute to this wonderful man.

Dahlia: I am shocked and so sad… I have no words… I always felt Milty would live forever somehow…

John: Devastated. Milty. One in a million.

Kelly: I’m gutted.

Rocky: Wow, he was a defining figure in my (our) high school experience. Very sad to lose him. I think he was the first adult I counted among my friends.

Kelly: Me too, Rocky. He was the adult who told the truth, but not in a way that reduced it or made the world seem depressing.

Kimm: I feel the same way. The first adult I felt was a true friend. Knowing him was unbelievably impactful to my life.

Ross: Taught me how to center myself. Taught me to improvise. Taught me about group dynamics. Taught me to take the classes I love.

Kristin: Best teacher I’ve ever had!

Claudia: Such an amazingly bright and energetic person left us. He was a great teacher! Will never forgot how he encourage me.

Christine: What a beautiful person and the reason I followed my dream and went to LA to act. I’ll miss his smile.

Erum: What a wonderful man. He taught us to question ourselves. He was a such a core part of the ASP experience for me.

Wendy: I will never forget the man who encouraged me to shine and work so hard. He is the reason I love the theater… Especially musical theater.

Charles: So many memories of him flooding to me now – Russia trip, setting up an impromptu display of singing glasnost (without a trained voice anywhere), and on the set of Working, teaching how to get the routine exactly right.

Laura: One of the most memorable teachers I ever had.

Reza: What a wonderful light he was for us all.

Andrea: Such a life force was Milty. He brought the world of drama and English to life for me in the two years I knew him.

Dale: A friend and mentor Ted Miltenberger. He taught me to think outside the box, he taught me to observe what was going on around me, he reminded me that life is not about work work work all the time. If not for Milty I would not be who and where I am today. Take care my friend…

Michele: I can truly say that my life and my son’s life would not have been the same without Ted Miltenberger. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor to me in high school and he ignited my love of musical theatre. A love which I passed on to my son, now a musical theatre BFA student. May you rest in peace Milty.

Eric: One of the great influences in my teenage years. Love this man – to me, immortal.

Alison: So many times I have smiled to myself in a rehearsal or just in regular everyday life and thought, “Milty taught me how to do that.” Professionalism, character development, stagecraft, improvisation, ensemble. You never accepted less than our best. You had a huge heart. I will always remember you. Thank you, Milty, rest in peace.

John: There are no words. He was an inspiration.

Dahlia: I have no words either…. Remember the theatre and those times and his infectious spirit and laugh? He is immortal to me…

Lindsay: I’m so glad I got to tell him what a huge influence he had on me a few years ago. He was such an inspiration. I am so sad to hear about this. FYI Rebecca, Ned, Rodrigo, Megan, Brud, Gaelle… We had such fun with Milty, n’est-pas?

Ned: I still use the principles of ensemble & self-regulation we practiced with him:…(

Robert: One of my most memorable classroom experiences ever…One day, out of frustration of people using “alot”, he jumped up on the desk and shouted at the top of his lungs “It’s not pronounced alot!” emphasizing the lack of space between the two words with his pronunciation. “It’s two words people! It always has been and always will be!” As the first and last time I have ever seen a teacher jump up onto a desk, it burned a memory into my brain. For years I could not come up on the words without thinking of him, as I’m sure is the same for everyone in that class, on that day. A true teaching treasure.

Paloma: He gave me such a love for the theater. So sad to hear to this.

Mim: Aww man. Milty was wonderful And perfectly created to be a drama professional. Decimating news.

Andre: Milty… thanks for everything you did for me.

Jeffery: He enriched my life in so many ways…

Rocky: Full of mischief!

A.J: He was my hero and mentor. Thanks Milty.

Carina: You were such a fun teacher to work with!

Kelly: Milty improvising with me outside the theatre, circa 1993… I still have the green and white binder for IB High Theatre. Have never been able to throw it away.

David: So much dedication and Humility!

Stephanie: I still have my IB Extended Essay, written under his supervision: “The Crucible and A Doll’s House as Reflections of their Respective Societies.” Will never toss it.

Orn: He was such an inspirational and charismatic man – unforgettable.

David: He was one hell of a director and an even better person. His empathy and compassion were contagious. I’ll miss you, Milty.

Morgan: I was just talking about him a couple of weeks ago and reminiscing about how great ensemble theater was with him when I was in middle school. Such a loss.

Dahlia: He laid the foundations for my falling in love with theatre and making it my life’s work. He taught me everything I know about it. My work today is completely inspired by his spirit. Very sad. Rest in peace, Milty. We love you, you are unforgettable.

Valérie: He gave me love for theater and whenever I teach it, I also think of him.

Dahlia: Yes me too!

Ken: He was an inspiration to me during my teaching career as he taught me to connect the material to my students’ lives. I even copied his classroom setup.

Goly: He had such presence, energy and positive attitude. He was a joy to be around. May you be received with a lot of song, dance and standing ovations!

Johanna: Dear Milty, Thank you for all inspiration, energy and sharing your love for musicals, theatre and literature, you truly had a great part in forming our lives, which is giving waves in the next generation.

Hyo-Jung: Oh Milty!!! .My true mentor my inspiration, you helped me so much by believing in me.

Christiaan: My heart is crushed… Milty was one of the best teachers I ever had! He taught me to truly appreciate literature and the arts on a new level, to not just watch and listen, but experience! But far more than that, he taught me to always be true to yourself, no matter what challenges you face in life… Those lessons have served me better than any advice anyone has ever given me, thank you old friend, rest in peace!

Shabnam: I’ll never forget how warmly you welcomed me, the theatre newbie, into your class. Somehow you made me feel like I belonged. You are one of those teachers that made ASP the special place it is. So long.

Edna: I have such fond memories of all my theatre classes with him. He was an amazing teacher. Thank you for everything you taught me.

Tammy: I am so saddened to hear this news. He meant so much to every life he touched.

Abbas: You were one of a kind– part of a handful of teachers who were more than just teachers. Thank you for inspiring us, instilling the magic within us and challenging us to dream.

Laura: My very first musical . What a wonderful man. One of the best things to ever come out of Kalamazoo.

Brud: Milty had a profound impact on my life… He was my first mentor and cast me in my first show. That led to a professional life in the theater for the majority of my adult life. The heavens are embracing one of the great ones today.

Karen: SO grateful to have been in his 1987 ASP production of Pippin – it made my senior year!

David: He must have loved Pippin because he did it with us in ~’82. “But Sire, that is unjust and tyrannical.” He made me own that line.

Yolaine: Cry, no words.

FX: Best english teacher ever.

Peachey: Mr Miltenberger was inspired and inspiring. My appreciation of theater will eternally be rooted in memories of Ted. So saddened by this news.

Tamara: Milty! Part of the glue of ASP who made everyone welcome!

Sarah: He was such an inspiration to me. Some of my best ASP memories were from his class and performing in school plays.

Xtina: Ahh, Milty. Effervescent and contagious. Quite a heterogeneous group he impacted. So many memories..hauling those cubes all over Amsterdam and back for Working, introducing us (literally) to Peter Brook and the Mahabharata, carafes at the cafe across the street from school, Hermitage museum excursions… His cheeky smile will be missed.

Claudine: He made us all feel special! Great man!

Joe: Milty a Great man and an Amazing spirit. By far my favorite teacher at ASP. I will miss you. Thank You for your wisdom and love and above all your laughter.

Dahlia: Those Peter Brook lines still ring out. First time I heard them was from him.

Kelly: Hear, hear. We should definitely have a memorial tribute of some kind and rename the theater in his honor.

Lindsay: I concur! He was the epitome of a phenomenal teacher, no better inspiration for young theatre students!

Desi: The privilege of being part of ASP’s music and theatre talent created was the greatest gift ASP gave me during my time there. They’ve inspired a passion in so many to appreciate the arts; what a beautiful kind of legacy to leave us.

Sandy: Such a light in this world, so sad it has dimmed but it will never burn out. His legacy lives on his students.

Catherine: Milty: The man from Kokomo. Irreverent. Acerbic wit. Dynamic, arms in constant motion. Through 8 years of high school & college, I found refuge in the theater; it was the only place I felt capable & confident. Milty created a safe haven for those who felt they didn’t belong; he treated us as equals; eyed us with affectionate humor and helped us hone a craft which made us feel proud and nurtured our confidence. Thank you, and rest in peace.

Kelly: As my classmates and I come to terms with the unexpected death of one of our greatest mentors, Ted Miltenberger, I’ve been reflecting on how theater is one of the few subjects that truly does teach you about yourself while guiding you through disciplines. Thank you, Milty, aka Ted Miltenberger.

Joanna: I adored that man. A Twist in the Tale, ASP Theatre, ’91/’92, written & directed by Ted Miltenberger .Those were the days! Such fun we had on that stage…

Dahlia: I think you were all in “Boundaries” or “Our Town”, while me and some others were in this one… And we had that amazing musician/piano player Greg and that choreographer… Sally!

Doris: Strangers in the night… I still remember singing that while we walked down the stairs to the stage!

John:  “We started out/thinking we were free/then we were told/what to be”.  What a call to arms for all kids given the opportunity of a lifetime to go to an international school in one of the greatest cities on earth!

Dahlia: Yes. What a powerful call to arms indeed. Those were the days. Goosebumps.

Kelly: The original lyrics were We started out/thinking we were free/now our eyes are open/we can finally see….we’ve NO boundaries.

Bisan: Incredible memories. What a group of people, what a teacher. These are our boouuuundaries!!!

Dahlia: Woohoooo! That song got me every.single.time. Tears and chills, I swear.

Jay: Merci Milty

 

Photo credit: Bill Leahy

Ted Miltenberger – A Legacy of Ensemble

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Ted, an English and Theatre teacher, was known for his uncompromising dedication to uncover his students’ talents, first, at the American School of Milan, then at ASP from 1979 to 2003.

From what looked like an obscure garage opening onto the Lower School foyer, he dreamed into reality what would eventually become the most vibrant hub of creative expression, student-life and community of ASP: the Performing Arts Center. He wanted to name it “The Josephine Baker Performing Arts Centre” since, for him, she was a symbol of the most vibrant cocktail of French and American spirit. With his bright yellow helmet marathoning from the building site to his classes, Ted fought tooth and nail with architects to preserve Peter Brook’s premise of “The Empty Space”. The stage was for actors to re-invent themselves. Seats could not be too comfortable because “the audience has work to do too”. In recognition of his patience and stamina without which the construction deadlines would not have been met, the 1990 Yearbook was dedicated to his “originality, knowledge, and the countless hours he devoted to all the students of ASP.”

When choosing the next performance for his students, Ted upheld themes of social justice, even if that meant a smaller audience. He often guided the students to write the script, compose the music, and learn together through play. Giving students the skills and the freedom to design costumes, lighting, makeup, stage sets, and choreography is one of the tenets of what would later be coined the “Ensemble” process. One memorable example was Boundaries, a stunning student-written play that dealt with the whole spectrum of emotions that comes with being an uprooted adolescent in Paris. It could become a manual for counselors, advisors, and parents alike.

Ted’s enthusiasm was not reserved for his students. Whoever happened to stop in at the teachers’ lounge in between Ted’s classes was instantly drawn into the passionate debates that took place regularly between coffee breaks and, microwaved lunches.

Ted was intransigent on quality; his students loved him for that and respected the way he guided them to explore the best of their often hidden talents. He said what he meant and did what he said; that was the key to his natural influence, even in the most challenging circumstances. Dead Poets Society stole his lines; he was already mentoring an international community of “Live Actors”.

In parallel to his love of teaching, Ted co-founded and presided over the International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) with a commitment to the concept of Ensemble, a  process of working together in a collaborative, risk-taking environment to facilitate creative and artistic exploration. During the many worldwide ISTA Festivals, Ted would work with Ensembles of students from different backgrounds, cultures and languages to build a supportive safety net where issues could be explored, feelings and perspectives shared and, through the rigor of theatre, dramatic presentations created.

Ted’s Ensemble approach to life meant that he was quick to open his ideas to others in the teaching profession. His deep understanding of the learning process allowed him to appreciate the significance of  creating an Ensemble learning climate across the curriculum.  French classes adopted the Royal Shakespeare Company’s techniques for working with language. The Middle School Advisory program blossomed with theatre activities, exercises and games to develop empathy, communication skills, and an authentic opportunity for group and individual affirmation.

A lifelong learner, Ted constantly refined his Ensemble ideas with practical feedback drawn from his concrete day-to-day experiences as a classroom teacher.

This led him to facilitate a much-acclaimed course for Michigan State University Outreach program:Blending the Ensemble approach across the fields of pedagogy.  This concept has now transcended boundaries into all aspects of education and business practice.

Throughout his life, Ted’s wit, ingenuity, and love of teaching wove a web of humanity, empathy and a passion for living that infused all of his work and the performances he guided and facilitated. He was pioneer in this sense, as he intuitively understood what has become the norm, especially apparent in the IB, with a growing emphasis on research, collaboration, and inquiry-based learning. His Ensemble techniques are now integrated in most IB Theatre classrooms, as ISTA infused and influenced the many new directions taken by the course over the years.

Most will never know that ‘Milty” was responsible for training many of the IB teachers, and that he was at the heart of this educational paradigm shift.

His legacy to us all as teachers of future generations is to pass on his collaborative approach, his awareness of the importance of striving together for a common goal, with an emphasize on process versus product. This concept is now referred to worldwide as the ISTA Ensemble approach – that and his infectious ability to channel, catalyze and transmit the creative energy of his students, colleagues, and community into such an influential, caring, progressive, and beautifully creative existence.

Ted left the stage unnoticed on January 23rd as he was expected in Hong Kong for the 2016 ISTA festival. The immediate explosion of 200+ Facebook postings rose as a poignant tribute to his lifelong impact on students. Always shunning curtain calls, he may have to put aside his modesty and “endure” them, as an ultimate tribute.

Community trumps content, while chance favors the connected mind

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Learning2 Europe Conference – April 7th-9th 2016 – Milan

We went to the Learning2 Europe conference as a team of thirteen K-12 teachers and administrators to bring back an innovative and pedagogical approach to foster a schoolwide culture of collaboration. Our focus was on leveraging technology to support students’ agency, as well as deeper and authentic learning, both locally and globally.

We returned with a sustainable vision which lay at the very heart of the conference’s structure:

‘Learning is social, participant driven, and risk taking’.  

Whatever the wealth of topics offered: from gamification to programmable robots and coding, makers movement, blogging, connecting, engagement vs distraction, design thinking, informed disruption, formative assessment, GAFE, empathy, to ‘the death of digital‘, content itself mattered less than the resulting face-to-face conversations about ‘what learning looks like’. The idea was to bring participants together to nurture innovative and collaborative hubs to learn, unlearn and relearn together.

What we experienced was a ‘flipped conference’ with an inbuilt transformative action plan: Engage and empower schools to connect as communities of collaborators who support each other and evolve with a shared understanding of the urgency to embrace the digital age mindfully.

Among the various session formats, the concept of the ‘unconference came as a natural answer to the challenge of professional development in schools. From a participant-driven vote on issues to discuss, spontaneous sessions flourished with inspired educators open to sharing experiences and ideas. The eportfolio unconference was a remarkable illustration of the power of collaboration.

Connections were formed before the conference, as participants were invited to join a ‘cohort of learners to share ‘burning questions and big ideas’. Daily cohort meetings allowed participants to touch-base and debrief shared resources organically throughout the conference. It was an authentic incentive to look forward to conversations, expand Professional Learning Networks, and design global projects together. The Learning2 #hashtag documented the conference’s momentum and connected colleagues who could not attend – a great way for hesitant newcomers to measure and embrace the power of Twitter for education.

There were no vendor stands, no hierarchy, no extended VIP keynotes, rather a passionate Learning2 team: lifelong learners, eager to share their own expertise, stories, and testimony to the value of interconnected and collaborative partnership among colleagues.

The brief and incisive Ted-like talks fostered the necessary empathy and set the tone for the ‘Innovator’s mindset.

The students’ participation at Learning2 confirmed MIT’s prediction twenty years ago, that the revolution will come from the students – a reality which is now undeniably upon us.

Learning is no longer a spectator sport but a participatory phenomenon. Students want to take charge of their own learning with the support of educators nurturing communities. The students’ L2 sessions demonstrated this, and their L2 Talks came as a wake-up call about ‘What’s Really Important for ‘Well Rounded Students: Enough of labelling them as selfish screen addicts with no empathy, when their curiosity and passion is in fact often curbed by a school culture obsessed with GPA. What chance do they have of becoming well rounded cultured renaissance minds, when ‘IB subjects that teach critical thinking are deemed electives?’ Can schools consider ‘The Race To Nowhere and explore the connections that will nurture meaningful and relevant skills to embrace the digital age fully equipped? Can we invite curiosity into schools and thereby help foster conditions for innovation?

‘Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from who I want to work for, to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.’ – Jaime Casap

We as educators are facing an imperative to step out of isolation and connect together as learning communities. Never before has the fast pace of change been so challenging to balance and navigate. Never before has education met such disruption. However, never before have educators had such an opportunity to innovate together and make a difference to learning in the way we:

We came back re-energized with a shared moonshot:

‘The closer we can scaffold learning communities, the closer we can get to that moon.’

Community trumps content while chance favors the connected mind – we witnessed it.

Thanks to the Learning2 team, the American School of Milan, and all of the speakers and participants who came together to make this weekend such an awesome experience.

 

From first draft to excellence, the magic of feedback

Austin’s Butterfly, “The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.”

This video by Ron Berger is an inspiring reflection on modeling the art of effective feedback in a way that brings out the best of student potential. The magic of this clip is partly due to the unspoken culture of this class, based on three essential principles: be kind, helpful, and specific. The challenge to the teacher is to provide authentic situations in which students can participate actively in their own learning as well as that of their peers. Creating a culture of dynamic critique among students requires teaching specific skills. Watch this clip to see how Ron Berger brings that to life.

Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work – Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Related resources on guiding students through the art of public critique:

Tapping into the passion for learning

 “Content is just the context for participating”…

This thought-provoking interview with Connie Yowell, is addressing essential questions about learning, especially meaningful in the middle school years, still vibrant with passion, curiosity and creativity. See interview transcript below:

“Content is just the context for participating. It’s the context for solving broader problems. It’s the context for being engaged with peers. And that’s – and this is an academic word – but that’s one of the big paradigm shifts that we have to make in education today, is to not think about that content as an outcome of learning, but as the context of learning, and instead, think much more about, Well, what do we want kids participating in, that that content is at the core of it? And that’s a much harder thing to design and to think about.”

Connected Learning: Real-world Engagement from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

“We really think that part of what’s wrong with the current educational system, and why people talk about it as ‘broken’ is that it’s fundamentally starting with the wrong question. The educational system often now starts with the question of out- comes. It starts with, “What do we want kids to learn?What are the goals and what’s the content? What’s the material they need to cover?”

Then everything [we do] is defined by that. It doesn’t almost matter who the kid is so long as we’re going on pace through the material and the content, and reaching those educational standards, and those outcomes – because that’s our starting point.

Our core question is, “What’s the experience we want kids to have?” So, the core question is around engagement. And as soon as you start with,“Is the kid engagedWhat is the learning experience we want the kid to have,” you have to pay attention to the kid. In the design world, you have to start with the user. You have to start with the experience of the young person – of the learner. So instead of starting with the outcomes, which is, for most educational systems, a math problem, or a math fact, or a literacy fact – which is not particularly [useful]… it’s decontextual- ized – it has no relevance to the learner, we instead start with, “What is the experience? Really, what do we want them discovering?”

 In our traditional school system, where we’re driving home facts and discreet knowledge, we don’t  make room for curiosity. We don’t create the opportunity for kids to take things apart anymore,

to look inside, to see how they’re made, to put them back together again. You know, we used to do it with our old chemistry sets. We used to just play and see what would happen, and wonder about it. And that engages the imagination, and can trigger the imagination. As we get more and more serious about test scores in our kids’ future, we move further and further away from those little opportunities to constantly fail and to iterate. We forget that those are also opportunities to iterate with one’s identity, and to play around, and to mess around. It’s so important to do that when you’re at the middle school age and early and middle adolescence. Even as adults, we’ve got to have these opportunities to be curious about who we are in the world, and about how the world works, and to fail and not be embarrassed by it, and to come back to those failures and do things over and over again.

We all understand what a page turner is. You can’t wait to turn the page to find out what’s on the next page, and what’s happening. You feel it viscerally. It’s not just in your head. You don’tjust have an intellectual curiosity. You really have a desire, a physical desire, to find out what’s happening next. In fact, sometimes you can’t go to sleep because you just want to keep reading the book. That’s a need to know. In school, we so decontextualize what they’re learning. We take it out of context and just teach them discreet facts. Because we’re so focused on these outcomes we’ve forgotten the learner, and we’ve forgotten that we actually have a passion for learning.

But how do you create a need to know in a kid? That’s an emotional question. That’s an intellectual question. That’s an identity question. When you start designing learning experiences around that, then getting to the content and getting kids to engage in core questions related to academic core, that’s actually the easy part. How do we design an experience where kids have a need to know fractions? What in the world would that look like? If I really wanted to design an experience for a 9 year old – a nine year old boy – a nine year old girl – to want to know what a fraction is? And often, that’s one of the reasons in our grant making we’ve turned to games. So games create an incredible narrative and a wrapper of meaning that you can put discreet skills or competencies within, that you might want to desperately know how to do a fraction in order to solve a broader complex problem that’s wrapped inside a game, [or] the narrative of a game. I can tell you that my son just jumps at stuff like that. But in school, he could care less about knowing what a fraction is. If it’s in the middle of game play, where he’s really working with a set of peers around solving some complex problem, he’ll demand that somebody teach him how to solve a fraction so that he can move on to the next thing.

Content is just the context for participating. It’s the context for solving broader problems. It’s the context for being engaged with peers. And that’s – and this is an academic word – but that’s one of the big paradigm shifts that we have to make in education today, is to not think about that content as an outcome of learning, but as the context of learning, and instead, think much more about, “Well, what do we want kids participating in, that that content is at the core of it?” And that’s a much harder thing to design and to think about. And so one of the challenges for education is for us to actually step back and say, “We’ve got content over here. This is one of the things that is so disconnected in our educational world. We put content over here on one hand, and then we think about what kids are doing on the other hand. And they stay discconnected in our educational world. We put content over here on one hand, and then we think about what kids are doing on the other hand. And they stay disconnected.We have to deeply connect those for kids. Otherwise, the learning has no meaning.”