Trailblazers- Student Driven EdMagazine

During the spring semester of this 2016-17 academic year, senior Anya Smith-Roman and junior Abigail Emerson, of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, led efforts to create and publish a new journal for education – all originating from the student-learner voice and position. Check out their first publication!

The Life of Pinya

It’s official, the first edition of Trailblazers, a student driven magazine on the Education Transformation Movement, is here with young writers from around the world contributing!!!! My peers in the Innovation Diploma, Abigail Emerson and Kaylyn Winters, and I have been working at this project all year after some last minute edits over the summer, we now feel it is time to ship the idea and get it out into the world.

So please check out our first edition which includes:

A Letter From the Founders

Meet the Curators: Anya Smith-Roman, Kaylyn Winters, Abigail Emerson

The learner-centered movement: Q&A: Sparkhouse Conference

Creating Something New: Brady Vincent

Change is a Conversation: Neel Pujar

Free Ranged vs. Caged: Kim Mi Yeoh

Intelligence: Cali Ragland

Community Connections

Good Reads

Thanks to everyone who helped make this possible!! Can’t wait for issue 2!

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Traverse17 Conference – Brief Summary

For the third year, I attended and facilitated sessions at the Traverse Conference, Watershed School’s Expedition to the Future of Learning (#tvrse17 on Twitter). In fact, the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) has been a partner for all three years of the Traverse Conference, providing multiple teams from MVIFI to lead and present various sessions about observation methods, design thinking, expeditionary learning, and instructional rounds, just to name a few.

For a window into the three days of this year’s Traverse Conference, check out the #TVRSE17 Twitter hashtag, or enjoy the Storify Trilogy from Jim Tiffin, Jr., an invaluable member of team MVIFI.

As for the sessions that I facilitated, I co-presented with Shelley Clifford, the Head of Lower School at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. We offered two sessions dedicated to learning about and experiencing learning walks and instructional rounds. Our session description follows, as does a link to our facilitator flow, which contains links to our materials and sites used during the sessions.

Learning Walks and Instructional Rounds: Being an Explorer of Your Own School
with Bo Adams and Shelley Clifford from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School
How do you study your own school community as researchers, designers and innovators? In this session, pioneers at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School will share their journey in using learning walks and instructional rounds to study the art and science of teaching and learning a their school. After laying some groundwork in our base camp, we will venture out to conduct learning walks among the other sessions at Traverse ‘17. Through experiential practice, fellow adventurers in this session will have a successful summit under their belts so that they can begin imagining and planning for future learning expeditions at their own schools upon return. [Facilitator flow and links can be found at]

Living in a Personal Case Study – Curiosity-based Learning

Before the middle of November 2016, I had never really rock climbed before, other than some scrambling over boulders at various times of my life while playing or hiking. I definitely had never tied-in with a harness, donned the super-snug climbing shoes or doused my hands in chalk. There’s no way that I could have named a professional rock climber or told anyone what a Yosemite rating was.

For the last two months, though, I have been spending a considerable number of hours each week exploring and immersing myself in rock climbing, mostly of the indoor kind to this point. I feel wonderfully “addicted” to pursuing climbing and adding it to my other interests in hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. My older son is full-in with me (he’s 12 years old and in sixth grade.)

I am deeply curious about rock climbing, and I have purposefully taken it on as a new project and interest to pursue. I genuinely love it in its own right. Because I am an educator, however, I am enjoying the additional benefit (again) of studying this process of learning something new that originated in the “personal interest” category. I am fortunate to be living a personal case study in curiosity-based learning in parallel to a great deal of conversation and writing about curiosity-based learning in schools. Through comparative reflection, I am thinking about a number of possible insights that my climbing is teaching me about a fresh paradigm for learning in schools.

Initial Exploration Kindled Deeper Curiosity

My younger son (he’s nine years old and in fourth grade) voiced some interest in going climbing. So the two of us found a gym (Stone Summit Atlanta) and signed up for a session with an instructor. Adam helped us put on the harnesses correctly, tied us into the top rope and served as our belay (our human safety anchor). But there was no lesson that we had to sit through or listen to before we were encouraged to explore – to get on the wall and try some holds and establish some familiarity with the situational feel of what this pursuit was going to entail. Within minutes, we were “begging” for some lessons. We had a need-to-know that was sparked by an instructor setting conditions for us to explore and to come to him with questions when we realized we had them. Instead of priming us with “These are the 5 things you should know,” Adam allowed us to create cognitive demand for what was contextually most important to us. This would make the learning stickier – our exploration created one side of the mental velcro we needed to search for the matching side of the learning strip we most needed at the time. Switching metaphors, our exploration prepared the soil in ways that Adam could plant teaching seeds that were more likely to grow. If Adam had tried to plant the seeds before the soil was ready, I don’t imagine the sprouting and rooting would have happened as strongly.

At such places as the Buck Institute for Education, an expert organization in project-based learning, they recommend a compelling “entry event” to begin a project launch. For Jackson and me, our initial climb exploration was an ideal entry event. I wonder why we don’t use this methodology even more often in school – to set conditions for exploration and invitation before providing prescriptive lessons. To allow the learners to prep the soil first means that they will come seeking the lessons, which no longer feel prescribed to the learner.

Tests Are Gateways to Open New Opportunities

Well, my younger son has not really taken to rock climbing (yet?) as a passionate pursuit. But because I wanted to continue, my wife graciously agreed to attend a belay class with me, so that we could become certified belayers and operate more self sufficiently in the gym as a partnered team. The class lasted about 90 minutes. The component parts included a hands-on lesson in knot tying, a feet-on-the-ground lab for how to handle the rope and safety equipment as a belayer, and an experiential practicum that put us in the real-world position of climbing and belaying as partners on the actual climbing walls. At the conclusion of the class, we had progressed tremendously, but we were still not certified to use the gym independently. To reach this next level and attain the full certification, we had to take a performance test at our next visit to the gym. Upon completing this check-off demonstration of learning, the test opened for us the full use of the gym, with all of its top-rope routes and bouldering options. The test was pass/fail, and the test did not so much feel like a summation of previous learning. Rather, the test was a gateway to further exploration.

I wonder how often students in school feel the delight of a test serving as a door that they can open to more possibilities, versus a test feeling like a means to close the learning that has just previously occurred. I’m optimistic that the fresh paradigm for school-based learning will borrow mightily from this idea that tests open doors as opposed to closing chapters.

With Access to Vigorous Assessment and Feedback, I Don’t Require Average Grading

I’ve been climbing for two months now. One might say that I’m at the school-equivalent of being at the “midterm” of my first semester of climbing. I know very well how I am performing and growing as a climber. When I began, I climbed 5.6 routes. The 5.6 refers to the Yosemite scale of declaring a degree of difficulty for a route. Now, I am consistently climbing 5.8, and I even sent three 5.9 routes on Monday, January 16. (“Sending” a route is climbing lingo for successfully topping out in a single effort. That’s what I think it means – I’m still learning a lot of lingo!) Until that day, I had attempted one of the 5.9 routes on multiple occasions –  in fact, I had tried it about 11 times and fallen at various places, over a number of days – usually advancing another hold further on every second or third attempt. The formative feedback is continuous, and the quantitative measures of the Yosemite rating provide me a localized understanding of my current performance level and my next goals to set. But I don’t need a summative, average score telling me I’m a “B climber right now.” That would have no meaning to me – it’s not specific or precise enough and it hides too much invaluable data that is more granular in nature.

And in the bouldering room, I began at a V0-V1. (In bouldering – climbing shorter walls with no rope – one metric for degree of difficulty is the Vermin scale, or V-scale for short.) Now, I am working on V2-V3 routes and learning more about pinch holds, slopers, crimps, and others. I am watching other bouldering climbers and picking up on techniques and styles that will propel my climbing forward. I am asking questions of others and receiving welcome, but often unsolicited, advice about what has worked for them on the same problem. Oh, in bouldering, a particular striving up certain holds to the top is called a “project.” And the pieces that one has to figure out to be successful are called “problems.” (Isn’t that wonderful!) It is very common to work a project and a set of problems for hours. The level of formative self-assessment and peer-assessment is profound. And the iterative, recursive nature of “trying, failing, trying again, getting further than before, failing at a new problem, trying again, ultimately topping out” is a vigorous endeavor with continuous assessment and reflection built in all along the way.

Of course, no one is trying to “average” my performance over the last two months to derive some sort of quantitative indicator of my mean performance. If someone were doing this “school thing” of recording an average of my overall performance, I know it would be a false indicator of my growth, progress, and current capabilities. As in karate, the highest belt level obtained indicates current performance indication. If one started at white belt and progressed to black belt, they are not considered a gray belt – the average of white and black. Similarly, in rock climbing, I am currently challenging myself with 5.9s and V2-V3 climbs. And I regularly work on lower ratings, with no shame, as I re-establish confidence, deal with tired arms, or provide myself a break from the higher-rated strivings.

I dream of not-too-distant futures when we will employ much more vigorous feedback and assessment in schools without feeling the historical urge to report only a summative, mean-averaged score. In truth, the schools who have a more robust degree of project-based experiences as core curricula often lead the way in innovating their assessment practices to more closely align with the ways we learn and track progress in our other performance-based pursuits in life.

If We Are to Pursue Our Interests, Assigned Homework Can Get In the Way

Since the belay class with my wife, my older son Phillip decided to try out the rock climbing. Shortly after the first attempts, he decided to get belay certified. For the past two months, he and I have been climbing and bouldering together as much as we can. We are spending about five to six hours a week climbing. We love it – both inherently and because we are getting to learn alongside each other. On top of the hours at the gym, we also now call up YouTube searches of rock-climbing technique. We have read two Rock and Ice magazines. We turn to Red Bull TV and watch episodes of Reel Rock. Just last weekend, we ventured to Boat Rock, an outdoor bouldering area in Atlanta, so we could start scouting out what the adding of outdoor climbing might look like for us.

Too often, I hear educators across the country talk about students not seeming to have interests and curiosities and “passions.” Many talk of how over-scheduled children are these days. Certainly, this is a complex situation with a number of variables. And certainly one of the variables must be related to homework. If the view that teens have fewer interests these days is true (and I’m not sure it is), I wonder when we expect them to pursue such explorations and potential paths of discovering their interests. After  a full day of school, upon completing an activity offered by school in the afternoon, many children and teens go home to begin a second shift of school called “homework.” This, too, is a complex issue which I do not mean to ridiculously simplify. But sometimes (often?), assigned-by-others work can get in the way of assigned-by-self work. Phillip and I assign ourselves five to six hours a week of gym time – we typically spend two sessions at the gym a week. Additionally, we pursue our curiosities and learn through reading, videos, and climbing shows. While I am not advocating for single-mindedness here at the exclusion of other learning and pursuits, I do wonder when we expect young people to explore and learn deeply “on their own.” Perhaps we should make sure that such time is an intentional and purposeful part of the whole picture. And perhaps we should not assume that so many young people would idle after school if we educators did not assign them so much homework. Maybe young people need more practice in building the motivation to assign themselves meaningful work. What if we made space for them to do so, with a bit of coaching and support?


As for Phillip and me, we intend to keep striving with rock climbing. We are having a blast, and we have a goal to work up to lead climbing (setting one’s own rope as you climb) and to add more outdoor climbing. Because we started with the project, we are also learning across many, many disciplines that tend to get subdivided in schools. Not only do I find the greatest joy in exploring a curiosity deeply and doing so with one of my sons, but I also find great scholarly challenge in connecting this to my understanding as a professional educator and educational innovator.

In The Innovator’s DNA, the authors described the five common traits that their research has revealed about innovators. Innovators observe, question, experiment, network and associatively think. By being highly conscious of my own personal case study in rock climbing as a curiosity-based learning goal, I am applying associative thinking and comparing this situational learning for me with the ways that learning is often situated in schools. Maybe more than anything, I am developing again a heightened sense of empathy for what it takes to learn, learn experientially, and learn deeply.

For you educators reading this – those who are working to transform and innovate and enhance schooling – what case studies and experiments are you intentionally engaging to most deeply understand the various ways that humans learn best? I’d be genuinely interested in your links, stories, comments, questions, and co-reflections.

I have much left to learn.

How’s your heart? From being busy to just being.

Two incredibly powerful, interlaced lessons about relating to others — about making time to truly be present with another.

In “The Disease of Being Busy,” an article shared by Krista Tippett’s On Being, columnist Omid Safi challenges what seems to have become the way many of us respond to each other when asked, “How are you?” Safi encourages us all to look past the to-do list when answering and instead to know the contents of our hearts — so that we might share heart with others.

And in Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Say your truths and seek them in others,” she offers a beautiful story about her “soul marrow transplant” with her sister. Lesser describes three lessons: “1) uncover your soul; 2) when things get difficult or painful, stay open; and 3) every now and then, step off your hamster wheel into deep time.” For in that soul-bearing openness of deep time, we discover true connection, compassion, empathy and awe.

And we need a bit more awe in our lives. Awe shared by making time simply to be…with one another.

Share the Well – A Thirst for Innovation

Share the well.

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, we work to be very intentional about culture. Our mission begins, “We are a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact.” To continuously live into this mission requires a deliberateness about our culture. So, we are responsible and accountable to one another in our school community through the norms that we’ve chosen. One of these norms is “share the well.”

To “share the well” originates from the offering of one’s water source to another. It literally means to invite others to one’s own source of sustenance and refreshment. Also, to “share the well” means to offer well-ness to one another… to share the health of oneself to others.

By sharing the well, we are setting the conditions for connection to others, to other ways of thinking, to deeper collaboration. To stand at the proverbial water cooler allows for essential exchange to occur. Repeatedly. Intentionally.

In addition to strengthening relationships, sharing the well also makes possible the networking and associative thinking that we know is essential to innovation. Being students and stewards of The Innovator’s DNA, we draw on “share the well” to heighten the possibilities for 1) observing, 2) questioning, 3) experimenting, 4) networking, and 5) associative thinking.

Because MVIFI (the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation) serves as a major component of Mount Vernon’s R&D efforts in educational innovation, MVIFI feels responsible for helping to set the conditions so that sharing the well can happen systemically.

During the month of October, MVIFI has hosted three events that function to share the well at various scales of community. For in sharing the well, we enhance the opportunities for networking and associative thinking.

  1. MVPS School Visit Day.  On Thursday, October 6, MVIFI hosted 45 people from 14 different schools and organizations around the country. During the morning program, we offer a “crash course” in learning walks and instructional rounds, and we send our visitors to conduct an experiential learning walk. At the conclusion of the morning’s learning journey, we listen for feedback from our visitors. We ask them to describe what they saw, as well as what their observations made them think and wonder. By sharing the well with those who do not spend every day at MVPS, we grow from their particular vision and perspective. Such associations help us to innovate our practices by inviting outside experience to look at what we are doing as a school.
  2. Collider. On the very next day, October 7, MVIFI produced an internal professional learning day that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Schools often describe their faculty as their greatest asset. Yet, ironically, few schools seem to make time and room for faculty to gather and “collide” across regular work flows to take next steps with specific strategic objectives. So, Collider was created so that Mount Vernon faculty could share the well on particular work that we are advancing as a school. Various teacher leaders offer sessions that function as test kitchens and camp fires to forward our ambitious intentions as a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact.
  3. A Night of Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact. On October 20, MVIFI and MVPS hosted an evening entitled A Night of Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact for us to “look up and look out” so that we could learn from what other mavericks are doing and experiencing in innovation spaces connected to PK-12, college and university, and corporations. We curated six speakers and a looping cellist to share powerful talks and performances about what it means to pursue three design drivers that we’ve positioned in our next strategic plan: a) How might we make school life more reflective of real life, b) How might we encourage all learners to be seekers and explorers, and c) How might we inspire each other, and the broader world, with the work we undertake? So, these seven innovation agents shared the well so that we could be challenged and stretched from our daily thinking.

As a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact, we believe deeply in sharing the well – within our own community, beyond our immediate school community, and across perceived industry boundaries – so that we might set conditions for networking of people and ideas and so that we might optimize the power of associative thinking to advance our work as mavericks.

How are you being intentional about the culture you create at your organizations and schools so that inquiry, innovation, and impact can flourish? How are you sharing the well?


This post originally appeared on, Monday, October 31, 2016.