Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holistic Dance Instruction - An Interview with Between the Bones Founder, Mary Lynn Lewark

Nationally recognized for her solo choreography and performances by age 18, Mary Lynn Lewark's passion for dance, creativity and education fueled her desire to build a dance school. Since founding Between the Bones in 1996, she has produced and directed 11 original productions. Today, Mary Lynn continues to generate new and innovative dance experiences for her students and faculty. Her life experiences as a dance artist and educator – as well as mother to Sydney, Ellery and Lucy - bring a joyous “break the mold” dance curriculum to Between the Bones.

How did you get into dance instruction?

I have been a dancer most of my life. By the age of 18 I had my share of dance injuries. I had been teaching dance and got my degree in education. My first teaching job was at an Expeditionary Learning School, where I taught Kindergarten through 2nd grade for three years. I was struck at how the way the school is set up so that everyone wins and everyone learns. It is very collaborative rather than competitive. Yet, typically in dance it is very competitive and is designed to ensure that only the best participate. When I opened up my dance school I wanted to build on the idea formed in Expeditionary Learning that dancing, too, could be collaborative and inclusive and yet still competitive with other programs. I like the idea of working thematically and then building backwards; thinking about what you want a dancer to be in the end– expressive, graceful, talented and skilled, athletic, healthy and working backwards to put elements in place to allow them to achieve just that.

I understand you take an unconventional approach to dance instruction in that you teach in a holistic way? Can you describe that?

What is unique about our school is the somatic nature of it using the Feldenkrais philosophy. Somatic education has many forms but they lend themselves to teaching people how to use their bodies well. The Feldenkrais Method teaches possibilities of movement, through experience rather than imitation. Over the last ten years I have worked with Feldenkrais Practitioner Bethany Cobb applying the Method to our dance education. Typically you get to Feldenkrais only after an injury or as you get older. That is how I found it! But I thought, why wait for that? Including Feldenkrais in our dance curriculum builds a foundation along the way for knowing and understanding our bodies, when to push, when to listen and how to reduce the risk of injury.

What is Feldenkrais and how does it benefit people?

Moshe Feldenkrais is the man who originated it as a form of rehabilitating his self. I look at it as a constructivist model for learning. Its philosophy is to set up a situation for learning without telling the students what they will learn. Dancing is usually about imitation and this is the opposite. It is designed to encourage an internal knowing. It helps to make people to become more aware of their bodies and helps to reduce the risk of injury by breaking down movement so that learning can occur. These days we see a lot of people who are much less coordinated and less flexible. It is likely a result of our way of living, where we don’t climb trees or run, our play is restricted. No one comes in perfect. We all have missed developmental milestones, like crossing over the mid-line, right and left coordination, etc. Dance and Feldenkrais help to achieve these.

What is the mission of Between the Bones?

It is to provide a balanced dance education. What I mean by that is we want to balance strength with softness; technique with expression; skills with self-awareness. By balancing each aspect of dance with its opposite the kids become whole people, whole dancers.

How does Between the Bones help students grow, learn and succeed outside of the studio or off the stage?

Dance in general gives body awareness and confidence. You are the ultimate multi-tasker as a dancer – you have to be present yet think ahead. You have to do a difficult move with great concentration yet express a sense of ease or something else. It takes tremendous self-control and elegance. You have to be able to learn quickly. Dance students make great problem solvers. When you make a mistake on stage you have to be able to deal with that and move on. You don’t know exactly what is going to happen next, so you have to be open to it. Dancing in a performance will help build skills in any field. It helps with both process and product and encourages intellectual curiosity and interest.

The way you integrate dance with other related topics, like nutrition, classic literature, and history brings these lessons alive for your students. Describe how dance can make other subjects meaningful.

I am biased but I believe you could learn everything through dance! When you are researching before a dance performance, you look into the time periods and observe why they are wearing what they are wearing. You get a look at the politics and religious values of that time while preparing for the dance. When we did Alice in Wonderland we explored that period of time and talked a lot about the author, the historical time frame, and did a lot of critical thinking and questioning in preparation for the performance to really understand what we were going to be doing and telling.

I appreciate that you encourage students of all body types to dance. Please tell me about your philosophy in that regard.

Modern dance and jazz are particularly more accepting of bodies of all types. The goal is to be healthy and in shape and it is a challenge to balance healthy with rigorous. The dancing we do requires skill and discipline. We’ve had body types of all kinds and many on the too thin side. It is helpful if they get caught up in dance and find it in themselves to improve for their own benefit rather than through the external pressure imposed on them. Feldenkrais is good with providing a balanced approach and a sense of self.

How can dance help us tap into the Age of Creativity?

At Between the Bones we use the story to drive our work and our performances. When the dancers are a part of the creative process like they are at Between the Bones, they become part of a collaborative team involving teachers, costume makers, and students to take a leap and solve problems that haven’t been solved before. It is not just imitative or just a recital. The story gives boundaries and rules and allows us to think creatively. It is constructivist: you throw all of the pieces together that you can work with, knowing that those are the only things you can use to create. Let’s see what happens.

For more information on Between the Bones, visit:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Opening a Public Waldorf School - an Interview with Alliance for Public Waldorf Education

How does the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education assist people and communities?

The Alliance for Public Waldorf Education is a member organization, supporting established schools, developing schools and initiatives in the planning and start up phase. The Alliance provides resources and free consultation from experienced administrators to its member schools. In addition, the Alliance provides an annual conference, professional development opportunities, and is developing partnerships in support of the public/charter schools movement.

How close does the public version of Waldorf come to the traditional Waldorf schools?

The curriculum and pedagogical approach looks very similar in both public and independent Waldorf schools. The public sector lens comes with additional transparency and accountability requirements, particularly around documenting grade-by-grade curriculum and academic standards. Most people wouldn’t notice much difference in the classroom if they visited a private Waldorf school or a public school inspired by Waldorf education.

With public schools' inflexibility on standardized testing, how do you keep the integrity of the pace of Waldorf with literacy?

At most public Waldorf schools, the curriculum doesn’t vary much from the traditional independent Waldorf program. Meeting literacy and all academic standards while nurturing the development of the whole child is integral to a Waldorf education. A Waldorf curriculum takes a different approach to reading in grades one and two; however, students are not tested in most states until grade three, by which time students’ literacy is basically on par with the testing standards. California schools test a year earlier than the federal government recommends or requires, and students tend to do poorly on the second grade exams. In later years, however, student test results are comparable and above, as would be expected with the full Waldorf curriculum.

In public Waldorf schools, do the students stick with the same teacher for 8 years or at least several years?

Yes. When a teacher has a class for several years, the teacher and the children come to know and understand each other in a deeper way. Children who feel secure in that familiar relationship, may be better able to learn. The interaction of teacher and parents also can become meaningful over time, which can be supportive to the child’s development.

How do you strive to keep the hands, heart and head balance in the public school setting?

Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy seeks to nurture all aspects of the child’s development leading to excellence in intellectual and academic capabilities. Artistic and practical subjects such as gardening, hand work, and woodworking play a significant role in preparing students for life in the ‘real’ world.

In addition to reading, writing, math, history, geography, and the sciences, children learn to sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, carve and work with wood, speak clearly and act in a play, think independently, and work harmoniously and respectfully with others. Lessons are primarily delivered orally by the teacher in a thoughtful, interactive and artistic manner, thereby engaging hands, heart and head into all lessons and activities of a student’s day.

How many public Waldorf schools are there in the United States?

There are 46 schools and initiatives in the United States.

How successful have they been?

Lower grade students moving to a comprehensive high school (public or private) are often recognized for their keen ability to think, for being well-rounded young adults, and as having experience as learners rather than merely digesters. High school graduates are likely to have well developed sense of themselves, sound thinking and reasoning skills, a genuine curiosity of their world, and love of learning. While public schools inspired by Waldorf education are relatively new in the United States, even the most prestigious colleges embrace Waldorf educated students as likely to be a contributing, engaged student and have a successful college experience. The Yuba River Charter School in Nevada City, CA, whose oldest graduates are now 25 years old, has had a group graduate from UCLA and Berkeley this year and has their first high school graduate attending Harvard. Other students are now finishing graduate school and one is a Waldorf teacher!

For more information on the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, go to

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reggio Emilia - Another Fine Italian Import Interpreted by Daniel Bigler

Daniel Bigler, previously a guest blogger here has graciously returned to explain Reggio Emilia. Daniel is a former Reggio Emilia-inspired teacher and eloquently explains more on this education modality or philosophy.

What is the Reggio Emilia philosophy?

It might be best to understand the philosophy within the context of its birthplace: Reggio Emilia, Italy. Reggio Emilia is a small region in northern Italy and after the devastation of World War II, many of its local communities and parents began to realize that the way to move beyond this violence laid within education. So among the war-torn rubble, mothers literally began to piece their communities back together by coming around their young children and building preschools for them. Loris Malaguzzi was a young journalist and educator at the time and impressed by the parents' efforts. He helped them build a system of schools that would ultimately support their different concept of how to exist within the world.

In many respects, it's hard to separate what's become known as the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education with their larger philosophy of life. If I had to try, though, it'd be characterized by these things:

* A respect for children and their capacities and curiosities

* An emergent curriculum that comes from the children and their inquiries about the world, which often manifests in in-depth project work

* A belief that children can learn through different "languages" and art mediums, and that representing and exploring learning through these is central to true understanding. Thus, at the center of every classroom is the Art Studio

* A sense of harmony and connection between the classroom and the broader community, the natural world, and others

* A letting go of time, of hurriedness and unnecessary expectations as part of an attempt to get back to the joy of learning. "Nothing without joy," as Loris Malaguzzi once said.

There's probably many other defining characteristics of the Reggio Emilia philosophy and each person I've found working in it is drawn to the philosophy for different reasons. I can only explore and share what Reggio Emilia is to me – though many others, like Lella Gandini, Louise Boyd-Cadwell, and George Forman have done a truly fantastic job at introducing Reggio Emilia's philosophy and practices to American audiences. There's a wealth of wisdom about education and "the Reggio Emilia way" in their books, if you're interested.

I understand it is more of a guiding philosophy than a methodology or set curriculum. Can you explain that?

Reggio Emilia's philosophy about education can really be summed up, I think, with this question: What is your Image of the child? Do you view children as capable, competent, strong, and wise? Do children have something to contribute to broader society? Are they able to be in charge of their own learning?

I wonder if you really have to be in the right place mentally, to work in a truly Reggio-inspired way: a conceptual place where you no longer place any "value" on education in the sense that you expect it to do certain things, and produce pre-established sets of knowledge and skills. This approach requires you to take a step back and do away with all the adult expectations of what children "should be learning" and instead just allow and encourage the children in front of you to learn what comes naturally to them. The emphasis is really shifted from the system to the child.

It's often mistakenly assumed that the Reggio Emilia philosophy requires less work of the teacher, because you don't have a curriculum; but really, it is the opposite. As a teacher, you're asked to be constantly and deeply engaged with the children you're among, and constantly reflective of where they are at mentally, emotionally, physically – fully aware of the possibilities of where their learning might go from here.

It's sort of as if you're committed philosophically to making everything up as you go along, without the past theorists and wealth of knowledge about "child development" to fall back on and get in the way of recognizing the children as they truly are. You're certainly engaged with these ideas from the broader culture, but you take nothing for granted. Instead of some checklist handed off from above or an abstract theory a guy wrote in a book once of how and what children learn, the children themselves become the benchmark for whether you're doing it right.

Reggio Emilia touches on our connection to each other, the community, the food on our plate, etc. Why is relationship and connection so important?

I'm certain some of this is simply reflective of the Reggio Emilia philosophy's Italian roots: the Italians emphasize family, simplicity, enjoyment. Their worldview is one of living life slowly and appreciating it fully, with others close to them. In that way, the way Reggio Emilia does "education" is a natural extension of how they do "life" altogether.

I don't know how much of this transfers easily (especially to America), since so much of it is worldview, but I do think there some important truths here. For instance, if we want kids to really explore an interest deeply and passionately, mindful that it's largely the process and not the content that matters most in children's cognitive development, then we have to give them ample time to do so. We have to value unstructured, unhurried days and not be bound to the clock. We have to let kids continue to play and build, even though our adult heads might say it's time to put away the blocks and sit down for lunch. Children need to be able to depend on and expect a certain continuity to their work – they have to be able to trust that they can revisit, for instance, their pretend dinosaur play or pirate ship block building the next day and the next, and not be hurried along to another thing on some curriculum list somewhere.

Likewise, if we want our children to truly know the value of human life and learn how to work and collaborate together then we have to emphasize and build *real* communities, and we have to set the structure and culture of our classroom so that everybody in it (adults and kids alike) truly rely and depend on each other, with an equal investment in the community as well as self.

In the same way, the children *have to* be connected to the broader community, woven into the fabric of the broader social life happening around them. They shouldn't be shoved aside in a child care classroom, guarded by a gatekeeper, while the adults of a community go off to work and live. Children need to be present and an active part of the life of a community – they need to be known and accepted at the local farmer's market, the park, area businesses.

This idea of fostering true community among children and integrating them into the broader community might be the biggest obstacle for American schools hoping to transplant the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Our strong individualistic tendencies and emphasis often get in the way of children truly learning to be a part of a broader classroom, community, or world. We often want our children to "develop" enough and become "educated" enough, become autonomous enough before we weave them into our society. But if we stop and think, this is a rather silly way of doing it. If we what we're after is empowered, capable, strong learners and thinkers who can go out into our society and make the world better, then we absolutely need to have them be an integral, welcomed and supported part of that world first.

I think most Italians would be appalled at our "child care" centers – aghast especially at the idea that we treat children's care as an economic good. Children have become little more than add-ons to our lives, not connected in any meaningful way to the broader cultural life and community. Until they are quality, purposeful early childhood education in America can never be fully realized.

How is the role of the teacher different in this setting?

Most education occurs within a deficit-oriented, authority-based paradigm. Teachers work to put knowledge and skills out into the classroom, making them accessible to children "at their level", so that children can become filled up with those (very culturally-bound) things. It's a future-oriented setting, always with the teachers looking onward at what children need to know next, looking for ways to impart this knowledge to them. Simply put, most education has children as passive bystanders in their own education.

In the Reggio Emilia philosophy, the opposite is the case: teachers believe that children are natural learners and inherently empowered individuals capable of incredible thinking and inquiry. The world, as Reggio-inspired teachers see it, is rich enough for children to learn from – and unless they've been taught out of it, children have a natural and insatiable curiosity for knowledge and understanding. Children are encouraged to experiment and make mistakes, to explore their own interests, The teacher's role is simply to support this, taking their cue from the child himself.

It's easy to mistake this as doing nothing, but in actuality there's a lot more work involved with this kind of teaching paradigm. One of the main new roles of the teacher is as observer and documenter: teachers listen to children's dialogue and questions, observe their play and activities, and root out their deeper passions and interests. Then in documenting their observations, teachers give themselves something to reflect on, an insight about further "provocations" and subtle changes they can offer, that might add a richer, deeper dimension to the children's exploration and activity. You slowly see the classroom's curriculum "emerge" this way, with teachers using their observation and documentation to reflexively introduce just "one more thing" to the classroom at a time – careful not to get too ahead of the children, but at the same time artfully scaffolding their experiences.

There is, of course, many other role implications to such a drastically different teaching paradigm. The teachers are collaborators with children, and don't necessarily provide them the answers, rather they encourage open-ended inquiry. At its core is this different concept of relating to children.

What is meant by the expression, The Hundred Languages of Children?

Understandably, it's not a literal expression and it's also not meant to be limiting, as "the hundred" might suggest. Instead, the expression "The Hundred Languages of Children" encapsulates the idea that children discover, learn, do, and exist in endless ways. Think of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences: it's the notion that children learn and achieve literacy about a topic through multiple ways, many different languages. The Hundred Languages is meant to communicate this open expanse of opportunity about how learning can happen.

It's also meant to engender a certain respect and acknowledge for each child as a gifted, thoughtful, and unique individual. A child may be naturally gifted at dance. Or a child might choose to sketch a drawing to express his understanding of how leaves form and maybe resemble the "skeleton bones" in our hands. The visual arts, physical movement, speech, music, hand work, dance, dramatic play... all of these can be languages of learning for children. Reggio-inspired teachers recognize this, and work with children to open these languages up to them for their use. This is why the L'Atelier – the "Art Studio" – is at the heart of any Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom. Through developing a proficiency in and meaningfully using these languages, children can – on their own, in the very truest sense of empowerment – deeply engage and explore topics, ideas, and inquiries in very real and concrete ways.

From a scientific perspective, allowing and encouraging children to explore one topic or object through a diverse variety of physical media increases and enhances the neurological connections centralized around that topic or object, deepening a child's schema of understanding about that thing. Representing and exploring things in different ways allows our brains to fully, comprehensively understand and appreciate those things in a way that simple bookwork would never allow.

How does this approach address matters of balance (academic, emotional, social, physical, etc.)?

You know, I think there's just a natural holism to the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers approach children as a whole, and I don't think that many people who work in this approach tend to think much about these matters of balancing the social, emotional, physical, cognitive domains. It simply comes rather naturally.

I sometimes think we, as adults break children's lives and experiences down too much. We narrow a child's life to such precisely defined parameters, that I wonder if we lose a part of it in the process. I don't think that the Reggio Emilia approach neglects any of these aspects of life. In fact, I think the balance is a lot richer and deeper than most educational approaches – but it's not something we spend any particular effort in doing. When you discard any adult expectations of how children should be, and view them simply as they are, it's much easier to meet children's needs.

How does the approach take sides in the debate of play-based education or early learning education in the younger years?

I don't know if the approach particularly does take sides. For its part, the Reggio Emilia philosophy is largely about culture. At its core it's a way of thinking about children, acknowledging their abilities and listening to them. There's a decent amount of mutual respect involved, but how this approach might actually "look" depends drastically on the individual community it's in and a part of.

Naturally, some classrooms may be more play and exploratory-based, while others might seem more "serious"; it simply depends on the children, the culture and experiences they bring with them, and how their interests manifest in the every-day activity of the classroom. Often this is through play, but sometimes it's through arts-based representation and exploration, project work, or other ways. As adults, we just try to let it happen, whatever it is and support it however we can. Of course as teachers we're kept incredibly busy but our roles change, from say, instructors and traffic monitors to observers, documentarians, provocateurs, and co-learners.

At the preschool I worked at – with many of our parents being working professionals – we had the children for a good portion of the day. We spent much of the morning engaged in more "focused" work, spending a lot of time in our art studio, either exploring and practicing different art media, or continuing long-term projects if we have any going on. The larger part our day has a natural, relaxed ebb and flow to it. We try to minimize transitions and group or adult-directed times during the day and children mainly work and play in small groups with their friends. The "curriculum" and activity of the classroom emerges from their own thoughts and ideas. In this way, "education" becomes a living, breathing thing, when put in the hands of the children themselves.

Is it only for younger kids?

Not at all! One of the very best (elementary) schools I've seen was a charter school in Portland, Oregon, that worked out of a Reggio-inspired philosophy. They had a preschool program, yes, but they also had grades above that – up to 5th grade, the last time I was there. It's very much a philosophy that largely transcends both age and, for that matter, culture.

The philosophy manifests itself in different ways at different ages, of course. When I was at this particular school, for instance, the 3rd and 4th graders were wrapping up these immensely impressive and elaborate projects on issues like civil rights, explored and represented through different media and experiences. They also didn't neglect the more "traditional" subjects like mathematics, although they explore them through holistic, interdisciplinary means, like integrating math with their other projects, for instance, or through kinesthetic and spatial means, like advanced architectural building with blocks.

The preschoolers, on the other end, had spent the year exploring issues of power and identity. The class had some unusually active young boys, and instead of having their unusually strong inclination toward rough-and-tumble play and pretend fighting suppressed, the teachers recognized its connection with another strong interest the children had that year – their interest in the animals that they saw at their semi-regular trips to a nearby zoo. The teachers magnificently wove both of these threads together, and, over time, these kids knew and, as unusual as it sounds, could innately sympathize with these animals on such an intimate level. Toward the end of the year, they spent several long weeks in the art studio, the children laboring intently over what would become these elaborately detailed, intricately painted paper måché masks that represented the different zoo animals. They finished them just in time for one last trip to the zoo, where the children donned their masks and truly, physically, emotionally *became* the animals on the other side of the fences. It's these transcendent moments that you only rarely get to witness that let you know there can truly be more – a lot more – to a child's education.

So the philosophy may appear differently at different ages, but it's very much for any age. If there's a central commitment to supporting children's inquiry, learning through arts- and materials-based representation and expression, and reflective, community-based teaching practices, then the Reggio philosophy can, in my mind really be taken anywhere.

How does the Reggio Emilia classroom look and feel compared to a conventional classroom?

In terms of the materials, I don't know if this is as defined as some would like to think. The philosophy can inspire any teacher or school – even those with few resources or funding – and it's really mostly the immaterial culture that stands in sharpest contrast to conventional classrooms.

I do think, though, that when teachers and adults are mindful about the environment that the children are in– "The Third Teacher," as the Reggio Emilia approach calls it, they find ways around resource limitations to imbue their environment with a certain spirit. Children learn just as much from the physical spaces and places around them, from the materials around them, so this is important. Even if a school is dirt-broke though, teachers can carefully consider what physically is allowed in their classroom, only permitting what they find to be meaningful or provocative to children's learning, in harmony with the children themselves and the spirit of the classroom as a whole. Teachers can foster attunement with the natural world by bringing in stumps, leaves, dirt, and so forth and they encourage resourcefulness and creativity by bringing in materials that are largely "blank" of their own accord in the beginning, but which allow children to project their own worlds and play onto them. In this sense, minimalism can often be a good thing – one of the best things, in fact. Children aren't distracted by the horrendously bright colors and flashy "educational" posters found in most conventional classrooms, and instead their classroom space really begins to take on, over time the simple lives and character of the children themselves.

It's this sense of harmony and attunement with the children themselves – not just some far off, distant concept of who the children are or should be – that I really can't adequately describe. It's very much a dynamic thing, changing over the years with different groups of children, and because it comes from individual children, it can never be replicated.

This harmony can in many ways be encouraged by setting a soothing, calm stage without distractions, by allowing the natural world in, placing live plants in and around the classroom, and by doing what is possible to let natural light in. This also means discouraging adult-designed or overly-specific toys or displays, and replacing the cute alphabet and weather posters with children's own artwork, carefully articulated documentation of children's learning, and photographs. Certainly, great attention is also given to the Art Studio, to make it a place of rich and diverse opportunity for exploring material languages and representing learning. There are a great many ideas and strategies that may physically set aside a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom from others. But in the end, it's the classroom's teacher who has the responsibility to mindfully this place.

This place will be different for each context, taking into account the culture, material resources at hand, and the children's lives – but we usually find that if teachers take the proper time out to think through the environment, not simply settling for the status quo out of a catalog but carefully considering the physical space in the perspective of this different philosophy of children and learning, then they end up with a classroom offering children much more meaning and spirit than a conventional classroom.

Daniel's blog can be found at

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ecoliteracy - An Interview with Lisa Bennett

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy. She is also a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and is currently writing a book about parents and global warming.

What is the mission of the Center for Ecoliteracy?

Our mission is education for sustainable living. We provide expertise, inspiration, and support to the immensely hopeful and vital schooling for sustainability movement that is rising among a growing number of public and independent schools in the U.S.

We’re committed to this for two reasons: First, because schooling for sustainability is grounded in ecological knowledge and hands-on experiences in the natural world—and this kind of schooling inherently stimulating, relevant, and alive. It makes education exciting again.

Second, schooling for sustainability is a promising answer to our many environmental challenges. Addressing climate change, the end of cheap energy, and other issues, after all, will require citizens who can think ecologically. And where else can young people be prepared for this but at school?

What services do you provide for schools?

We offer a wide range of services, depending on what a particular school needs. In fact, our work typically begins with identifying the appropriate starting point for each school. Usually, this tends to be the theme or pathway most people in that school community care about. It might, for example, be around food, gardens, the campus, community, or larger curriculum.

We offer seminars that attract people from around the United States and many other countries, and books, such as Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World and Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, which will be available in September 2009.

We also offer curriculum audits, coaching for teaching and learning, in-depth curriculum development, school sustainability report cards, and technical assistance. You can find more information at

What kinds of schools do you typically work with?

We have worked with hundreds of schools, both public and independent, and seen extraordinary successes in almost every setting imaginable. The article, “Greening a K-12 Curriculum,” describes how we worked with one school that sought to integrate sustainability education throughout its entire curriculum. (See

Why is sustainability an important concept for an elementary school student? Shouldn’t they spend their time on reading and math instead?

The good news is that this is not an either-or choice. That is, schooling for sustainability is not another “add on” that teachers must somehow squeeze into their day. Rather, it is a richly creative approach to education that allows teachers to integrate an ecological shift in perspective into subjects ranging from art and English to science and mathematics.

To support this shift, the Center for Ecoliteracy offers a framework called Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (also the title of our new book!) This is grounded in four guiding principles, which can be applied in a single classroom or entire K-12 school:

1. Nature Is Our Teacher
2. Sustainability Is a Community Practice
3. The Real World Is the Optimal Learning Environment
4. Sustainable Living Is Rooted in a Deep Knowledge of Place

I love the statement that food is an organizing principle for encouraging ecological understanding. It certainly brings ecology from the conceptual level to the practical, meaningful level. Can you explain this more fully?

Food is so central to human survival and experience that it can be a pathway for integrating nearly any subject—science, health, history, social studies, geography, art, economics. Nutrition education makes more sense when studied in the context of how nature provides.

How we grow, process, transport, market, prepare, and dispose of food is critical to the central issues of sustainable living: resource use, energy, pollution, water and soil conservation. Food serves as an ideal entry point for understanding the interrelations of such world issues as hunger, trade policy, energy use, and climate change.

Students can track the sources of the food in their lunches and calculate the resources and energy used to bring it to them. They can research what types of foods would be available to them if they were to adopt a regional “hundred-mile diet”—eating only food grown within a hundred-mile radius in order to emphasize fresh and seasonal ingredients, support local agriculture, and reduce the energy and expense needed to preserve and ship food over long distances.

You advocate education of the head, hands and heart. Why not just the head, as most schools focus on and test?

As our cofounder and executive director, Zenobia Barlow says, "We know from considerable experience that human beings struggle with cognitive dissonance, which means that we can uphold an idea or a value, while simultaneously acting in ways that are inconsistent with that idea or value, causing us to resolve those dissonances or rationalize them. Our current lifestyles are an example in terms of consumption and its implications. Left to the head alone, we are in trouble as a species."

Sustainability is also a practice that involves skills. Addressing environmental problems like climate change requires complex thinking and changes in behavior. For example, look at how the Southern Hemisphere—or the people on the other side of the tracks, so to speak—is forced to live with the consequences of our decisions to place toxic dumpsites or ship toxic waste to their backyards. To fully grasp this issue, one needs to genuinely care about who is downstream, and then act on it. The Head alone won't get us there.

Furthermore, living sustainably implies living in community. It's not for the faint-hearted or the single person dwelling in isolation. Living sustainably involves relationship, communication, and cooperation skills. We can’t achieve mastery by reading or philosophizing about them.

If you read the brain research on how people learn, it's multi-modal. Talking at people about ideas isn't a very effective education strategy. People learn by actively constructing their knowledge base—and that is best accomplished by engagement, grappling with real problems.

The people who dreamed up nuclear energy or bombs without having figured out what to do with the toxic waste exemplify what happens when education primarily engages the head.

Humans have a range of competencies. Education poses the challenge of responding to the vast spectrum of human capabilities. Remember the notion of "I think therefore I am." That was the Cartesian logic of a few centuries ago. We need an updated education model, don't you think?

It seems Ecoliteracy takes on not only the classroom, but the school at large, involving the staff and community as well. It demonstrates that schools are not just institutions for students learning, but, as you put it, they should be a healthy network of relationships that include everyone. What is the school sustainability report card and what is done to help schools achieve good marks on it?

Absolutely! Because, as we say in our Smart by Nature principles, sustainability is a community practice. That is, sustainability depends on a healthy network of relationships that includes all members of the community.

When educators, parents, trustees, and other members of the school community make decisions and act collaboratively, they demonstrate sustainability as a community practice. School communities also have the opportunity to model sustainable practice through the ways in which they provision themselves with food, energy, and other basic needs, and how they relate to the larger communities of which they are a part.

The Center for Ecoliteracy sustainability report card is a broad assessment of schools' sustainability policies and practices. It is conducted through the lens of campus, curriculum, community, and school food systems.

Tell me about Smart by Nature.

Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability a new book from the Center for Ecoliteracy and our senior editor Michael K. Stone. Available in September 2009 from U.C. Press and, it portrays the hopeful new sustainability movement that is growing among public and independent schools in the U.S.

Endorsed by Daniel Goleman, Alice Waters, the National Wildlife Federation and others, Smart by Nature offers a compelling framework for schooling for sustainability that is based on nearly 20 years of experience in schools. With its roots in systems thinking and whole-school change, this framework is organized around the four central principles I mentioned earlier: Nature is our teacher; Sustainability is a community practice; The real world is the optimal learning environment; and Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place.

This book also offers concrete strategies for greening the campus and curriculum, conducting environmental audits, rethinking school food, and transforming schools into models of sustainable community.

Smart by Nature is also the name of our larger initiative that is dedicated to supporting the schooling for sustainability movement nationwide. You can learn more by signing up for our newsletter at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Balance in Democratic Education - An Interview with Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, a DC-based education “action tank” devoted to restoring the public purpose of public education. He is also the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 principals create more equitable, high-functioning learning environments. Previously, Sam spent five years at the First Amendment Center as the co-director of the First Amendment Schools program. I approached Sam with some concerns and much admiration for the Democratic model of education. By the end of the interview I was convinced that this is one the best education modalities going.

Meghan McCain recently got slammed for not having an encyclopedic knowledge of history, when she admitted to not knowing much about a certain historic event.  While she did inadvisably blame her lack of knowledge on her youth, it begs the question: what *should* a child should know when he graduates from high school?

I am less interested in mandating what a child should know than I am in exploring what s/he should understand and be able to do. As I wrote in a recent Huffington Post op-ed <> , if our goal is to prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace, the standards we pursue should be whatever young people need most to be successful in college and the workplace. And in today's world, although young graduates certainly need a foundation of content knowledge, the greater measure of their long-term success will be the extent to which they learn to use their minds well.

Using one's mind well means more than just acquiring large numbers of discrete facts; it means learning how to find, analyze, and use information in adaptive ways. It doesn't mean content doesn't matter either - just that our decisions about which content to teach (and why) should be made at the school level, by the people who know students best - their teachers. Neither does it mean we should throw up our hands and say there are certain things we just can't measure.

I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that, say, a school in California and a school in Mississippi are reaching for the same golden ring. Common standards would be useful, therefore, but they must be aspirational, not basic. They must be guideposts, not hitching posts. And they must be indicators of wisdom that students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Is there a set of core skills, like literacy or basic math skills that you feel is important to someone fresh out of school and looking for a job?

I spoke to this a bit in the previous question, but I'll get more specific by using the example of a school in NH where the curriculum is organized around seventeen skills (the school calls them 'habits') of mind and being. Content is one of several ways - professional internships, wilderness treks, and shared governance are others - through which the school helps young people cultivate these core skills, including habits as elusive as "collaboration" and "quality work."

I'm not suggesting this school's set should become the requirement for all schools - just that it is vital to decide as a school community what core skills you want your graduates to acquire, and to then work backwards from those skills to ensure that your school's curricula and activities are all aligned to help young people develop accordingly. Short of this, as it has been said before, any road will get you there.

I am respectful of everyone learning at his own pace, yet I know of someone in a Democratic school that is 15 years old and cannot yet read.  I am very uncomfortable with that.  I feel like that child has missed out on years of beauty, learning, independence - the very thing that Democratic/Open schools are supposed to nurture.  Can you comment on that?

This is the central riddle I try to answer in my forthcoming book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community. The crux of the problem is that many schools are unaware of a fundamental tension that exists in all of us - on one hand, there is the irresistible, universal human impulse for freedom - and for feeling in control of our own destiny and determining the shape of the world around us. And on the other hand, there is an equally pressing human desire for structure, safety and a sense of order to the world.  

These two universal needs – for freedom on one hand, and structure on the other – are particularly relevant to our nation’s school leaders, who must strike the right balance between the two in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And yet in my years as an educator, I have witnessed scores of schools that choose, consciously or unconsciously, to value one of these needs at the expense of the other. In some schools, like the one you described, students are given too much freedom, and adults end up abdicating their responsibility to serve as authoritative guides for the learning process. In others, schools provide too much structure, and adults end up becoming authoritarian presences who stifle student engagement and self-discovery.

We do not need to choose. It is possible – indeed, essential – to find the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure. In fact, research confirms that when school leaders do so, they create optimal conditions for student learning, motivation and engagement.

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. We need schools that provide young people with well-structured spaces in which to discover who they are and what they care deeply about. We need schools where adults prepare students for active citizenship and the 21st century workplace. And we need schools to reinforce democratic practices that extend beyond the school’s walls, helping adults unite behind the shared belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard. But before that vision can become a reality, we must ensure that the central elements of our social covenant are also in place in our schools: a clear sense of structure and shared identity on one hand, and an unwavering commitment to individual freedom on the other. And that's a very specific leadership skill, and one that isn't necessarily a part of most training programs today.

In the work world, if we are lucky, we get to choose which tasks to do, not whether or not to do a task.  For example, Terri Gross, the host of Fresh Air on NPR gets to interview all sorts of interesting people.  She can choose who to interview, but she doesn¹t get to to choose whether or not to interview someone ­ she doesn¹t get to keep her job if she doesn¹t do something.  Some schools give their students a lot of liberty.  How does his much liberty prepare a person for much less of it in the work world?

In schools that don't have the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure, kids are sometimes not prepared well for the world beyond those walls. This is why it's so important for those of us committed to democratic practice to become experts in organizational change theory, systems thinking, etc. It isn't enough to just tell kids they have rights. Jim Collins has a good way to put this, even though he was talking about successful businesses. “Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action – operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities – this is the cornerstone of a culture that creates greatness.” The same holds true for schools.

Without experience or much knowledge of the world about us, we don't know what we don't know.  How do you expose children to new ideas, other cultures, the history of the world, the wonders of the universe and still preserve their freedom to choose what they want to learn?

The learning process is the process of personal transformation. It's the chrysalis, the experience of developing the knowledge and skills to use one's unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.

So the way you expose children to new ideas, cultures, and wonders is by aligning every aspect of your school to the shared goal of providing a healthy, high-functioning, supportive, relationship-driven culture of learning - one in which adults provide professional guidance and simple structures that help young people discover their passions and their inner voices. Once that is in place, the rest will take care of itself.

How does a Democratic school capitalize on the collective knowledge of our culture, for example our elders, our experts in a given field, our authors?
In short by creating a legitimate democratic learning community.

Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander adult education schools that helped train activists like Rosa Parks, put it this way: “I think it’s important to understand that the quality of the process you use to get to a place determines the ends, so when you want to build a democratic society, you have to act democratically in every way. . . . When you believe in a democratic society, you must provide a setting for education that is democratic.”

Once such a culture is established, it's inevitable that the spirit of appreciative inquiry that is at the heart of democracy will ensure a steady stream of new ideas, opinions, experts, etc. This is because when we allow all voices to be heard, and when we engender a respectful exchange of ideas, we invite the creative power of “civil” friction. “One of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas,” Peter Senge explains. “In great teams conflict becomes productive. There may, and often will, be conflict around the vision. In fact, the essence of the ‘visioning’ process lies in the gradual emergence of a shared vision from different personal visions. . . . Conflict becomes, in effect, part of the ongoing dialogue.”

Identifying your own strengths, weaknesses, and interests comes from continually coming into contact with people, ideas and subjects, especially those previously unfamiliar to us.  How does a Democratic School provide this environment for self-knowledge?

C. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT and an expert in organizational learning, offers a useful metaphor for the deeper level of understanding and awareness you describe. Scharmer, who grew up on a farm in Germany remembers his father teaching him to see the fields they tilled with a wider lens. “Each field, he explained to me, has two aspects: the visible, what we see above the surface, and the invisible, or what is below the surface. The quality of the yield – the visible result – is a function of the quality of the soil, of those elements of the field that are mostly invisible to the eye.”

Scharmer believes we should see “social fields”  the same way. “Social fields are the grounding condition, the living soil from which grows that which only later becomes visible to the eye. And just as every good farmer focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the soil, every good organizational leader focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the social field – the ‘farm’ in which every responsible leader works day in and day out.”

Understood this way, the most “visible” aspects of a school culture are the things parents, educators and students do, say, and see. Trophy cases. School bathrooms. Test scores. Cafeteria food. Uniforms. Policies. All are important indicators of a school’s quality and commitment to young people. And because these cultural indicators are visible, they end up receiving the bulk of our attention.

By contrast, the “invisible” parts of a school culture are far more elusive – and essential – to the cultivation of a healthy learning environment. Scharmer describes these features as the inner conditions from which parents, educators and students operate with each other. Our hopes and fears. Our emotions. The quality of our relationships with each other. The issues we have informally agreed never to discuss.

These factors are the deepest determinants of a school’s success (or failure) at creating a high-functioning school. And yet precisely because they are invisible (and so much harder to work on), they tend not to factor into most school improvement plans.

The central challenge in any organizational culture, therefore, is to help people become more adept at different ways of seeing – and of being seen. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Attending to both dimensions – and balancing individual and group needs – is an essential goal for any organization. When a school finds the right balance in its organizational culture, it encourages all people to discover the power and uniqueness of their own voices. It helps young people chart a navigable path on their ongoing journeys of personal development. It helps members of the school community foster more meaningful, trusting relationships with each other. And it turns the old maxim about young people on its head, by creating a learning environment based on the belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard.

Sometimes growth comes from doing things we don't like to do, or through continual practice or effort.  How does a Democratic School nurture important qualities like resilience, mastery, persistence and the like?

The short answer is it doesn't - unless the school is intentionally set up as a place that welcomes "civil friction," and an environment that prepares people to feel comfortable with the discomfort of competing ideas.

This idea is not new - it's the core idea behind the First Amendment. And at the heart of that spirit is a framework for civil friction that my former colleagues at the First Amendment Center call the “Three R’s”:

•    Rights: The First Amendment’s guarantee to protect freedom of conscience is a precious, fundamental and inalienable right for all. Every effort should be made in public schools to protect the consciences of all people.
•    Responsibilities: Central to the notion of the common good is the recognition that the First Amendment’s five freedoms (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition) are universal rights joined to a universal duty to respect the rights of others. Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.
•    Respect: Conflict and debate are vital to democracy. Yet if controversies about freedom in schools are to reflect the highest wisdom of the First Amendment and advance the best interest of the nation, how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical.

These are the ground rules of our democracy. Properly understood and applied, they are equally useful for our public schools.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chicago Arts Partnership in Education - Bringing Integrated Arts to Schools - an Interview with Amy Rasmussen

Amy Rasmussen is the Executive Director of Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE) and is responsible for financial management, marketing, and organizational planning. Amy joined CAPE in October 2000 CAPE after working with The Chicago Chamber Musicians for six years. Amy holds an M. A. in Arts Entertainment and Media Management from Columbia College and a B. A. in Music from DePaul University. She currently serves on the advisory committee for the Chicago Arts Learning Initiative. I caught up with Amy to ask her about CAPE.

What is the mission of the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education and what does it do for schools?

CAPE’s mission is to improve student learning through the arts by improving students’ creative capacity and critical thinking skills through the arts. CAPE’s primary strategy is to partner closely with teachers and schools. CAPE works collaboratively with teaching artists in Chicago and beyond to bring more ideas into the schools. We recognize that if this initiative is to be sustainable it must impact adults in the building and the system within which we all work, not just the kids. We provide support for educators, working with them on development and curriculum design. We have seen substantial growth with teachers’ capacity to serve as leaders in school. For example, traditionally arts teachers serve as preps teachers. They get kids for 40 minutes once a week for half the year. We work with teachers to help them develop their leadership skills. They become curriculum designers and integrators, and become professional development providers in their own building. With our approach there is inter-faculty collaboration and collaboration with teaching artists and arts organizations. Chicago is a major cultural capital, and everyone wants to work in schools and support arts education. This works best when teachers and principals know how to negotiate partnerships that will best serve the needs of the students, school and community.

How does music help to develop physical, intellectual, and emotional development?

I am an oboe and guitar player and, in my experience, music study and performance is a different way to think. It facilitates the use of a different part of the brain. Kids in school need to develop different ways of thinking. I know when I create music, I feel energized and creative long after I put the instrument down. There are countless anecdotes of kids not doing well in other subjects and then they pick up an instrument and it changes them. Music allows you to express in different way. Music definitely impacts social and emotional development. When you feel better and you have ownership of your capacities it correlates to better school performance.

Young children can gain exposure to music with singing and listening to songs. How early can children learn instruments?

I am a big advocate of early music – music education starts at birth! As early as age three, children can be encouraged to try an instrument or can be encouraged to listen to music or see a concert. The goal is not necessarily to develop a child prodigy, but to develop literacy in the broadest sense, recognizing patterns, developing language – in order to develop those pathways of thinking. It should not just be about listening; rather it should be actively creative.

There are many authors and innovators (Daniel Pink, Sir Kenneth Robinson, Richard Florida, to name a few) that are talking about creativity and imagination being among the most important qualities in our economic success going forward. How will music instruction play a part in that vision?

It’s huge! I think that our economy is totally tied to creativity and innovation. In order to train people to be creative and innovative they have to develop the kinds of skills that are taught through the arts. I think that kids need exposure to all kinds of contemporary art making, focused on concepts and big ideas. Art making shifts between the literary and the aesthetic to the conceptual and the abstract. People who are working in innovation and developing new businesses, products, or disciplines need to be able to move between all of those ways of thinking. They need to move between frameworks and concrete actions. When learning a piece of music, like a sonata from the very beginning it doesn’t quite make sense. At the beginning you are just getting fingers to go to the right notes at the right time. Later you get to the bigger concepts, like “what was the composer trying to say with this piece?” Later still you interpret the piece through your own lens. Not enough learning takes place in that way! Kids studying the arts learn the creative process and then create their own thing.

How does music help with balance in life?

Schools are becoming more aware of this issue and are endeavoring to exercise different parts of the brain. You physically feel different after playing music. It refocuses energy in a completely different way allowing you to go on and accomplish other things well afterwards.

We’ve seen erosion in arts education, including music in our nation’s schools. What has been the consequence of this?

Look at the economy. I think the public greatly underestimates the connection between decreased quality in school and the decreasing economy. The challenge is that increased quality in education does not have an immediate payoff – there is no immediate economic benefit, this is why it is so difficult for our political leaders to choose to invest in high-quality education. Hopefully, President Obama will inspire more long-term thinking in this area.

What can a school with a limited budget do to offer some form of music education?

In Chicago there is quite a music scene. There are six or seven universities with music programs and many people to teach and provide music. It requires leadership at school to find these resources and put it together in a cohesive way. Parents need to think about 24/7 education rather than 30 hours in school. While we all would love for each school to offer a comprehensive music education, we know that it is not always going to happen in the deepest, richest way. A parent should question what his or her child is getting in school and where else can s/he go to get more. There are community music schools and programs and local arts organizations. Parents can form groups to decide what they want to advocate for in their school. There is a school here that had a part-time music program and they wanted a full-time program, so they raised money for it. Is it the best way to get this in place or even ethical? I think it is the state’s responsibility, but the parents were motivated and inspired. There are resources available but it takes the leadership of parents and heads of schools to pull them together.

How can the arts integrated into a curriculum provide a context for learning history, science, math and other subjects?

CAPE’s approach to arts integration is a multi-faceted strategy that addresses students’ academic and social challenges. The organizing principle of CAPE’s model is the engagement of professional teaching artists who collaborate with classroom and/or arts teachers, as well as school leadership and parents to plan, document and implement arts-integrated learning opportunities for students. CAPE’s model of instruction begins with teachers’, teaching artists’, parents’, and students’ questions about learning. This methodology is inspired by Dewey’s theory of education, which holds that optimal learning and human development and growth occur when people are confronted with substantive, real problems to solve, and that curriculum and instruction should be based on integrated, community-based tasks and activities that engage learners in forms of pragmatic action that have real value in the world. The instructional process includes Inquiry, Documentation, Assessment, Evidence, and Reflection.

This inquiry approach to curriculum development creates common themes and ideas across networks of classrooms and schools, and creates opportunities for collaboration and sharing of successful practices. This process does not put in place a set of pre-designed activities, rather it creates a common approach for addressing curriculum content and standards, with ample freedom for creativity, and room for developing a wide-range of effective teaching strategies based on the needs of individual learners.

CAPE’s instructional methodology is based on its 17 years of practice and research on effective teaching and learning in and through the arts. CAPE’s achievements are documented in the landmark publication Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts On Learning, released in 1999 as well as cataloged at

Some specific examples:
The Green Unit at Agassiz Elementary School focused on increasing students’ knowledge of renewable energy and empowering students toward social action through the visual arts. Students were given the opportunity to explore, investigate and develop strategies to improve environmental behaviors at school and at home. Students also investigated how we power our cities and developed ideas for changes. The curriculum included science experiments with plants, soil, energy, light, heat and electricity. Students toured Agassiz School with their school’s engineer for a hands-on experience of vocabulary words like “boiler,” “compressor,” “generator.” The students developed a collective visual project that incorporated many of the ideas of renewable energy and energy conservation; expressed through photography, collage, painting with watercolors. “SOLAR TOWN” was a miniature city installed on the front lawn of the school made of small solar-powered houses that stayed aglow through the nights. Students documented their own work throughout the unit with poetry wheels, journals and digital cameras. Students also created a questionnaire and mailbox as part of the installation and asked for feedback from neighbors and passersby.

In the “INVENTORS MEET THE MEDIA” unit, 4th grade students from Mark Sheridan Academy compared processes and character traits of both inventors and video artists through creating short films. The fine arts teacher worked with the fourth graders on camera technology, shots, angles and artistic expression with film. Students practiced with digital still cameras and eventually camcorders. Students then researched specific inventors and created biographies about the inventors’ lives and inventions. This research served as a springboard for the content of the student videos.

After initial shots, students watched the footage using a rubric they created to make decisions about what to change, what takes they wanted to cut and what effects were needed. The teachers and teaching artists also used this rubric to evaluate student performances, filming technique, and content/storyline, but also to determine how well the students were able to self-assess their work.

How can parents encourage a love and learning of music outside of school?

This is done by example. When parents get excited about it, the kids get it. Parents can provide the opportunities for learning and enrichment. My parents let me take any class or course I wanted. I experimented with all sorts of courses, like the arts, great books, and a computer class. Eventually something sticks. Be open to all of the possibilities and opportunities.