Traveling Beyond the Known World

Our campsite

Our campsite

We concluded our school year with a camping expedition near Mt. Shasta. One of our faculty members, Michael Fisher, tells the tale of what for many was the "peak experience" of this week-long adventure:

The light dims, and shadows begin to crest over each of our faces. Yet still the fire is not lit. 
We are huddled here together, shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle, waiting, singing, clapping, anticipating what comes next. The light grows fainter. The smell of worn canvas surrounds us, promising warmth as the night gets colder. Yet still the fire is not lit. The requisite wood and kindling sit at the center of a makeshift fire ring, and Jesse, one of our Back to Earth guides, is working furiously to start the fire. And yet... we’re still waiting. 

Some of us may well be thinking, this is killing me! I can’t wait any longer!
Still, we hold the space, some of us silent, some still singing and clapping.
What is it like to leave where we’re from? To enter another culture and inhabit its worldview, including what we may experience as foreign irritation, inconvenience, and the grave dismay of delay?
Throughout this year, Millennium School sixth-graders have ventured beyond their known worlds on numerous field trips and wilderness days. But until that last night on Deer Mountain, sitting side by side in a tipi they helped construct that afternoon, none of us had perhaps traveled this far from our basic expectations and reliable routines.

When night comes, we flip on a light switch. If camping, someone always has a lighter. But here we were beholding an ancient ritual, experiencing something bigger and more meaningful than instant gratification, the modern pace we usually take for granted. 
Earlier in the week, students learned the bow drill fire starting technique they were now watching Jesse model. It consists of using a bow with heavy string to turn a small spindle and create heat through friction. Most of us tried it, and few of us labored long enough to be successful. Yet even this experience of difficulty helped grow our respect for the people who made this practice a part of their daily life. Our horizons expanded by virtue of new knowledge, felt first as awkwardness, then as reverence, however nascent, just as a new flower blooms.
That night we expected Jesse to make it look easy. We sang, expecting our collective cadence to catch the flames he’d channel instantly. But none came after one minute, five minutes, ten that became fifteen, twenty, longer. Several students joined Jesse to try and make a true coal that would glow red and ignite the tinder bundle. Others tried to strike flint against steel. The group continued to support them, and slowly we confronted the prospect that all may not go according to plan.
This period lasted about half an hour, but it felt like an interminable odyssey of sitting and waiting. Voices trailed off and then resumed halfheartedly. Hands hurt from the incessant clapping. Yet the ritual was unfolding before our eyes. 
In the face of our entrenched preferences, which we do not often recognize as conditioned by our culture, we were cultivating patience. Feeling our minds as one, as we affirmed each morning in our thanksgiving address, adopted from the Haudenosaunee people.
Out of this space, Eli, another guide, spoke to and for the group.
“You know,” he began slowly, “we all have egos. All of us, even your guides, want things to look good. But the truth is that we’re not always in control. The fire teaches that. It asks us to remember our limitations. To feel what it’s like when things don’t go according to plan.”

Around the tipi, faces were rapt. After a year of mindfulness practice, and now this year-end camping trip, Millennium students knew how to sit and wait. Amidst frustration and uncertainty, they had developed the capacity to trust in something deep within themselves.
Finally, Jesse invited another student to use a lighter to spark the tinder bundle. We watched as she moved with reverence and precision. And then, in what seemed like a single instant, flames enveloped the wood. It all happened so fast.
We spent four nights in nature without phones, clocks, mirrors, buildings, or indoor plumbing. It wasn’t always easy, but we learned that we can live without some of what we take for granted, at least for a little while. 
In the tipi especially, seeds were planted and nourished by real-world experience in a foreign culture. 
What we’ll find out next is how they grow in seventh grade and beyond.

By Michael Fisher


Student Blog Posts

For our final STEM quest of the year, students took up the challenge of becoming agents of change for the environment. Having studied food webs and ecosystems, as well as climate change and other environmental challenges, each student chose one action-oriented project to make a difference for the environment, and then documented it in a reflective blog post. Here are a few samples:

Would You Throw a Beach Cleanup? I Did. 
By Summer Williams

It may seem like a daunting task at first, but in the end, your beach cleanup will not only affect you, it will also affect your community and all the animals living in the ocean next to the beach you cleaned up. In this blog post I will show you 6 easy steps on how to throw a beach cleanup! 
Read the full blog post here.

I upcycled clothing and it was way harder than I thought   
By Lily Maloney

What if instead of throwing out old pieces of clothing that still fit you upcycle them? You don't really need to buy new clothes when the average american throws out 65 pounds of clothing per year. Let me tell you how to upcycle instead!
Read the full blog post here. And watch the video version here!

Bake the World a Better Place!
By Ben Hobson

A bake sale is a great way to raise money, awareness and weight! I feel that we can join together and make an impact on the world by saving starving kids in Africa, stopping ocean pollution, funding research for breast cancer, and much, much more with bake sales. I hope you will take your opportunities and privileges and use them for good. Read on for 10 steps to make your own successful bake sale!
Read the full blog post here.

Congratulations to all the students for their hard work, their clear actions to help the environment, and their reflections as documented in these and many other blogs! 

Authentic Assessment

The students filed into a sleek conference room at a high-tech San Francisco company, dressed in business casual. With no small amount of excitement and trepidation they gazed at the six "Sharks" waiting for them - real venture or philanthropic investors ready to hear their pitches. It was "Shark Tank" day, the culmination of a month-long project in which each student, solo or in a team, designed a business concept and a "pitch" complete with Profit & Loss Statements, organizational structure, and no small amount of ambition. They had readied pitches to address the crisis of homelessness or to make hilarious t-shirts, and everything in between. 

Now was the big moment: 3-5 minutes, recorded, in front of six investors who would then fire away with questions. They were anxious but focused, some using their new mindfulness skills to calm and center themselves, everyone taking one last chance to read through their notecards and scroll through their slides. Soon their names would be called and they would walk up to face the Sharks. 

2 hours later, as Sharks, students, teachers and parents were chatting and laughing after the event, all acknowledged that something remarkable had happened. The students had seemingly lifted themselves to a higher level of performance. Uniformly we heard from the Sharks that they expected to hear "cute" presentations from 6th graders and instead were stunned at the depth and skill they saw. Parents were amazed at what their children could do. Faculty breathed immense sighs of relief as they realized that students had not only met their high hopes but often given their best performance ever during "game time." How did this happen? 

We believe one of the most important approaches at Millennium School is the concept of authentic assessment. This means that most of our Quests - the core interdisciplinary classes students take in six-week terms - culminate in a presentation of learning in the real world. In the story above, students had done a Quest on Entrepreneurship, developing skills ranging from math for their financial calculations to persuasive arguments for their pitches, and the authentic assessment was to meet these investors in the same way an aspiring entrepreneur would. The six investors were the "authentic audience," whose expertise was unquestioned, and who had more objectivity than the students' peers, teachers, or parents. 

The term before, students had completed a deep investigation into the legacy of slavery and racism in America, and their authentic assessment was to present to a panel of African-American community leaders, among them an historian, a civil rights lawyer, and an elder who had lived through segregation in the South. Once again, the students' "game" was raised beyond any adult's reasonable expectation - their focus, nuance, and maturity amazed all of us. 

When students know they're facing an expert, objective audience, they tap into a greater motivation to demonstrate learning. They may be aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the many biases that teachers and parents have; in some cases they may be aware of an unconsciously lower bar because the teacher or parents knows how they've struggled with something. The objective audience knows none of that, and so with the right preparation, students apply themselves more conscientiously. The same works on us as faculty, recognizing that an objective group of experts is about to evaluate our students, pushing us to work harder and to not let students 'slide' for any reason. 

There are many reasons why a great middle school connects with the real world, making it a bridge to adulthood and not an island. This is one of them - with authentic assessment, students surprise themselves with their performance and then witness, through the eyes of strangers, how capable they are. They take the resulting evaluations seriously, more so than subjective teacher ratings. And they gradually weave their interests, their academics, and the realities of the world together, making learning memorable, formative, and confidence-building. How would you feel if, after 8th grade, you could look back on more than 20 major presentations to investors, historians, scientists, and political leaders?

How Trump's Election Shaped Our Curriculum

Our faculty member Michael Fisher just published an article on the website of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley. He describes how Trump's election tested our abilities for compassion and ultimately led us to some of the most powerful emergent curriculum of our first year:

How One School is Teaching Empathy After the Election
By Michael Fisher

I teach at the Millennium School, a new independent middle school located in the heart of San Francisco. Mindfulness and compassion are essential parts of our curriculum.

Yet on November 9th—the day after the presidential election—the sixth-grade classroom I walked into was anything but calm or kind. 
Read the full article here

Welcome, New Families!

We had a beautiful evening this past week, with current parents and students welcoming 26 incoming families to the Millennium School community. What a trip for all of us to see how much has changed in the year since we held this event for the first time, full of nerves and excitement for the launch of the school. A year later and we feel the momentum, the budding traditions, and the energy of a thriving and growing community. Thank you to the brave founding families for making this possible!

Developing Social Consciousness

By Michael Fisher, Guide (Faculty)

This week our Quest started with a genuine social science experiment.  With little introduction, students were presented with a series of images from the micro-lending website Kiva.  Each image included a photo of a single individual and a background that may or may not have revealed something about their workplace.  As students looked at each image on the projector, they were asked to rate "how much I want to help this person?" on a scale of 1-10.

The methodology was simple.  We asked students to stay quiet so as not to influence others' judgments, and allowed 10-20 seconds to review each image.  The idea was for them to circle their immediate reactions, since these were most telling of deep assumptions and moral reasoning.  

After scoring eleven images, students discussed their responses and the factors that influenced their degree of sympathy and altruism.  Many talked about facial expressions: the presence of smiles and frowns, and what they thought these meant.  There were some diverse interpretations, as some thought a smile meant a person was happy, so needed no further help, while others thought a smile indicated "niceness" and hence sympathy.

The final two images displayed the same man with an apparent frown on his face.  Like the previous nine images, #10 contained no information or context.  Yet #11 included the Kiva description, which listed where he was from, the amount of money he wanted to raise, and what he planned to use the money for.

This distinction allowed students to assess the role of information in decision making.  Did knowing more about the man incline us to want to support him more, or less?  What kind of information mattered the most, and how did individual students interpret the same facts?

What we found is that our moral reasoning is highly subjective.  Students and teachers alike are affected by their cultural assumptions, which reveal themselves in distinct reactions to differences in clothing, facial expression, skin color, and housing.

Our purpose in starting with this experiment is to prime students to approach their Kiva giving project with more awareness and ownership of their own meaning-making faculties.  This is the beginning of a much longer-term project in developing social consciousness and sensitivity to diverse experiences.  But already it's clear that our students are responsible global citizens in the making.

Millennium School Featured in Education Reimagined

We're honored to to have Millennium School profiled this week by Pioneering, the publication of Education Reimagined. Special thanks to Dr. Melina Uncapher, Education Director of the UCSF Neuroscape Lab, for her kind opening remarks which began the article: “Millennium Schoolʼs work is the most groundbreaking weʼve seen, and represents the future of education if what we hope to do is prepare young people to be agents of learning and to thrive as adults.” We hope to live up to these extremely generous words!

Here's the profile.

We also had the opportunity to publish our own short piece on the Education Reimagined website, describing how Millennium aims to bridge the gap between research and real-world learning. Click here for the full length piece.

Absorbed in the Real World

A group of students clustered around an ultrasound monitor, totally absorbed in watching the grainy images of the fetus moving inside the womb. A doctor hovered nearby, explaining what they were seeing, and then answering a torrent of questions about what happens inside the maternity and obstetrics ward. 

Earlier that day, the same group of students was wandering the Google campus, in awe at the utopian vibe of the place, employees chatting in park-like areas and playing basketball. More than few eyes opened wide when our host explained that when Google searches for new employees (as every student in that moment wished to one day become!), it's not enough to be smart - they look for collaboration skills, or "teaming" as they put it. Hmm! So it turns out that students' challenges in collaborating with their peers during our Quests may be more worthwhile than they had realized.

This was just two snippets from one day, out of five days in which our students fanned out around the Bay Area to visit a wide variety of workplaces. Earlier that week they were engrossed by jeweler Emi Grannis, explaining how she creates unique pieces of metalwork, and what her path has been like as a solo entrepreneur. They visited two "B Corps", Mafia Bags and Fireclay Tile, learning about this new type of hybrid company that strives to make a profit and do good. Others heard from technology executives and software engineers, were rapt with attention in a professional kitchen, and witnessed a documentary film being made. The list goes on...

This was our weeklong intersession on Workplace Exploration, following our developmental model of exposing middle school students to the "real world" beyond the walls of their school. What do adults actually do all day? How do they discover passions and apply them in the world? What's worth doing? How does this connect to my academic work?

After a week of constant movement, we were all a bit tired, but aware that important seeds had been planted. I think back to seeing one student utterly absorbed in a presentation from architect Olle Lundberg, showing a level of focus and engagement that many would believe is not possible at this age. Another student, sitting in a delivery room at a hospital, literally leaning in and beginning to ask what seemed like a never-ending line of questions, curiosity bubbling over. This odd age of middle school is when kids for millennia began to do meaningful work for their communities, and in so doing began to feel valuable and to understand how they could be members of a community. In our more privileged society, our students do not have to work yet, but they still need to understand the world of work to satisfy their deep curiosity about how value is created and how their studies relate to the world around them. After this week, some new connections are forming in their minds, and we'll see where it takes us...  

Venturing into the World

Next week at Millennium School we have our spring intersession, the week between terms when we dive into an intensive, short-term project to refresh ourselves and explore some new territory before the next term begins. We're particularly excited about this intersession, as we have an action-packed week of visiting workplaces all over the Bay Area. Each day we'll divide into student teams, research a given profession to generate questions, and then jump into vans or onto public transit and head to real-life workplaces where hosts are waiting to introduce us to the field and to their own path through it. 

This is part of our developmental theme of connecting school to the real world, exploring how people find ways to act purposefully and authentically in their professional lives. It's also a lead-up to our apprenticeship program, launching in the 7th grade, during which each student will have the chance to become an apprentice in a workplace and further explore these connections. 

Thanks to many Millennium community members who have volunteered their time and their workplaces, we have an exciting lineup of visits. Students will visit professions ranging from metalsmiths to tech company founders, architects to software engineers, accountants to museum curators, nonprofit leaders to chefs. The aim is to gain exposure, to explore what makes these people tick and how they find and apply their passions, and to peek into the world that adults inhabit while kids are in school. We don't want any students to feel like they have to 'choose' a professional path; the aim is rather to lift the veil on what adults do all day, a topic of great interest to many if not all students at this age!

We'll share more after the week, but here's to making school less of an 'island' and more of an integrated part of this amazing city we inhabit.