Hamartia, Martyrdom, and the Plight of the Self-Important Teacher

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Waiting at the doctor for my diagnosis. #thuglife

While lying on the couch yesterday, succumbed to what I learned later in the day to be pneumonia, I found myself immersed in the television, achy from head to toe, my chest wheezing with every breath.  I pored through shows and movies on Netflix, Hulu, and HBOGo, until I finally found a movie that I’d been meaning to finish for a long time, “The Fault in Our Stars.”

It was a timely watch, and not to worry: it’s not because I have terminal cancer or currently know anyone with it. Instead, it was because of one of major themes in the movie.

“Hamartia,” Hazel Grace says in the movie. “It’s a fatal flaw.”

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Back-to-School Night, Reimagined

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Back-to-School Night has always been one of my favorite nights of the year.  Everyone–educators, families, and students alike–are bright-eyed and excited for a new year.  Parents buzz in, practically bursting with questions, admiring work on the walls, wanting to see more of what their child’s day actually is like.  Ironically enough, on too many Back-to-School nights, parents leave with just the opposite.  They don’t learn in the way that we want our children to learn. Instead, they sit, they listen, and they have little opportunity to actually interact with their child’s environment.

Fortunately, my team and I did something to change that last night.

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Technology as Empathic Extension


It’s hard to believe it’s been three whole years since I began working in a 1:1 classroom. It all started when one of my teammates came up with the crazy idea to write a grant for the first iPad initiative in our school district. She ended up having great success with the pilot, and as a result, the program grew to include our whole team, and eventually the whole school.  Never before had I used technology at such high frequency, and I’ll admit, my understanding of what technology should be used for in the classroom was limited. I envisioned students humming through applications, using one for math facts and another for social studies content, meanwhile doing some word processing here and there.

But that was just my naiveté.

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From Imagination to Reality: What Does it Take to Start Your Own School?

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Opening Fort Mason last year!

A little over a year ago, I embarked on the exciting journey of founding my first school. It was not even a week before school started that we broke into our space, began moving around furniture, and settling in for a year of learning. And now, a little over a year later, I find myself in a similar situation, my dreams coming true all over again.

Last night, we had our open house, at the brand new AltSchool Palo Alto, where we we’ve built a home for approximately 75 students and 7 educators. Parents and children bustled in, dumping boxes of magnatiles and puzzles on the floor, feeling at home almost immediately. I walked around, re-introducing myself to some familiar faces and excitedly greeting some unfamiliar ones. Little ones clung to their mothers’ legs, but with only the slightest smile and the temptation of some engaging toys, they were soon rambunctiously exploring our new space. Sound bounced off of every corner in the room, and the building suddenly came to life.

Just two weeks prior, though, I walked through the space, and I found it almost unrecognizable–at least as a school. It just didn’t feel like one.  Drywall was unfinished, furniture was still in the process of being shipped, and many of the faces and families that filled my spreadsheet were nebulous introductory characters in this story we’d begin writing soon.

So when we finally got in the space Tuesday to move in, I was thrilled to place furniture, sort and organize materials into boxes, pore through piles of children’s literature, and assemble spaces for exploration and curiosity. And we accomplished all of that. We managed to move it all into place—every piece of furniture, every book, every magic marker.  But in that moment, the school still felt very simply like a figment of my imagination, a still empty building despite its contents, a sleeping idea waiting to come to life.

11891394_10205134110249558_6421865660195188264_oIt just didn’t feel real.

It’s fascinating, creating something brand new, something that didn’t exist before. After all, there has to be a point, an instantaneous fraction of a moment when something goes from non-existence to existence, from intangible idea to concrete fixture, from imaginary to real. And that moment hadn’t come yet, despite the fact that I felt that it should have. Alas, we had but four walls and a bunch of supplies.

But that all changed yesterday evening the second I heard the first noise signaling the beginning of our open house. I was sitting in one of our small focus rooms, finishing up some work on my computer, when I heard the brushing of footsteps against our newly tiled floors and soft, dampened voices whispering through the freshly painted walls of the rooms. I opened the door, hearing giggles from the classroom and voices buzzing. I walked out of the focus room and into my new classroom to see guests arriving, children already running around, and smiles adding light to the rooms.

And it wasn’t until in that small moment, specifically, that something changed.  The furniture that lay next to the walls suddenly looked different.  The hexagonal tables seemed to perk up just a bit, and I could have sworn the manipulatives in the cabinets quietly ruffled just a little bit, anxiously awaiting busy hands to play with them.  It was in that moment that the four walls and the furniture… suddenly began to feel like a school.


I walked around for the better part of an hour. Time neither existed, nor was it of the essence. I was enraptured in meeting my new students and watching them explore the space. I was captivated by the happy smiles of parents and the relaxed shoulders of my teaching team. I was blissfully unaware of my own existence, and numbly present for every second, up until the moment when one of my new students, dancing around in her bright pink dress, came and gave me a big hug.  I saw two of my teammates from across the building smiling and watching this short interaction from afar. At that point, the preciousness of this moment crept into my conscious.

As the final parents were clearing out, one of the fathers approached me.

“How long have you guys been in the space?” he questioned.

“Only a few days,” I replied back.

“Wow,” he said. “Pretty incredible that you got all this done in that time.”

“You’d be surprised how little it takes to start a school,” I said back to him.

Perhaps through hearing myself utter that simple sentence, I realized just how simple it actually is to start a school. Sure, you need the facility to be up to code and some materials to work with, but without the people—without the excitement, the passion, the relationships, and the joy—a school does not exist.  And in my opinion, those are the easiest things to find.  You just have to look.

In fact, the people are precisely what filled that immeasurably small moment for me last night: that gleefully abrupt change from non-existence to existence, from intangible to concrete, from imagination to reality, that moment when I realized we had created something very special, the moment when I no longer simply saw faces on a page but real people, investing their hopes and dreams into our school and into us.

I realized that without the people, and without the relationships, a school is nothing; it’s simply four walls and some furniture. Instead, a school requires relationships built on a strong foundation, good will, trust, and the desire to reach out to one another, in order to build something that never existed before.

Sure, it’s a leap of faith, but it’s certainly a leap of faith worth taking.

Measuring Networks and Relationships: A New Way to Visualize Student Learning

“When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.”

I heard this in a recent TED talk from Manuel Lima, expert in visual data analysis and researcher of human thought-mapping. While Bruce Mao, designer and founder of the Massive Change Network, was the originator of this piece of wisdom, Lima used it in his talk to discuss not only the historical mapping of human cognition, but also the importance of making connections and forming networks.

For whatever reason, my first inclination when trying to analyze a problem is to break the it into smaller parts, or to put each of the pieces in little boxes. By doing so, I’m able to find root causes or discrete components that might give me insights about the function or form of the whole. And this aligns relatively well with Lima’s visual history of human cognition, in the sense that our ancestors started here, too. They made trees that represented knowledge and broke it up into little pieces, whether it was Darwin using a tree to represent many of the world’s species or governments trying to display and classify the laws and philosophies of their nations.

And I, too, have been making trees for quite some time, but I make them for something different. I make trees for standards instead.

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