5 Lessons From Our Launch

Visitors often ask what we're learning from our first few months of running a school. We could fill a book or two with the full answer, but here are five lessons that come to mind right away:

Lesson #1: Kids are ready for more social-emotional learning than we realized.
We began somewhat gingerly here - starting with 30 seconds of meditation; teaching a few basics of conflict resolution  - and nearly every time, we found kids absorbed it nonchalantly and were ready for more. So we picked up the pace. A month in, the whole group was participating in a deep, complex two-hour workshop on how to parse our stories and conflicts - into facts, emotions, assumptions, underlying desires, etc - in a way that would challenge most of us as adults, and left us astonished. Even more amazing was how they began using these tools in their day-to-day discussions and disagreements. We're using materials created for executive leadership training, barely modifying them, and students are absorbing them. It re-affirms for us how much this age is keenly aware of social dynamics; if we offer some structure and ideas to understand what's going on, most students rapidly absorb and integrate them.

Lesson #2: Authentic Assessment makes a huge difference.
Instead of quizzes and tests as our primary assessment, we aim for each Quest (core interdisciplinary class) to culminate in a Presentation of Learning. In our first STEM Quest, this took the form of a presentation to a panel of actual scientists, making an argument for or against spending money on the search for extraterrestrial life, using scientific evidence and persuasive reasoning. In our first Humanities Quest, our final presentation was to the San Francisco Youth Commission, in impressive City Hall offices, where students presented the fully legally drafted texts of propositions they would like to see on future ballots. 

These are both examples of an "authentic audience," whether scientists, youth commission members, or other adults who are objective and have real-world expertise. The motivation to demonstrate your skill to someone who isn't "beholden" to you - i.e. not a parent or teacher - is real and gets students very focused. By the time they complete their three years at Millennium, students will have each completed about 30 of these final Presentations of Learning, all stored on their digital portfolio. They will be very practiced in interacting with professionals and leaders of all stripes, and these interactions, we hope, will have drawn more of their best work out. 

Lesson #3: Culture is everything.
Building culture is extremely challenging - imagine starting with a lake (all of your ideas and personal practices) and needing to turn it into a river (a community being propelled by an understood and consistently modeled culture). Finding the route, excavating, making sure that water flows reliably is extremely labor intensive. But it's also the reason we started a school. After all, changing the flow of an existing cultural "river" is even harder! 

When culture is still in formation, both kids and adults get anxious. There's a lot of looking around with questions in the eyes - "What do we do when this happens? Will teachers get mad in this situation? Which parts of me can I safely express here?" We are continually challenged to respond to this in ways that come from our best judgment, knowing that every action we take is being carefully watched and will be formative to the culture at this stage. That's a lot of pressure. We muddle through in our human ways, doing our best to show up with presence, empathy, vision and a loving firmness.  

Now, three months in, it's starting to happen - the trickle of water in our new river bed has become a stream, and the culture is helping us in small ways. It's beautiful to watch. We hear reports from parents that their child used a breathing technique to de-escalate an argument before voices were raised, or applied our "clearing model"  of conflict resolution when in conflict with a sibling. We notice kids dropping into their new habits faster, whether that's a meditation minute, a Socratic seminar discussion, or their project teams in a given Quest. We can tell the culture is setting in because kids seem calmer and less anxious. The work continues.

Lesson #4: Creating boundaries without resorting to traditional sticks-and-carrots is hard but worth it.
Of all the areas of culture-building, we've been most challenged by this one - how do we create "loving firmness" in our rules and boundaries without falling back on traditional methods, e.g. shaming and labeling kids who break rules? Frankly, we began the year too softly, too afraid of falling prey to those old traps of yelling at kids, handing out detentions, etc. Not surprisingly, it quickly became apparent that we needed to build firmer boundaries for kids. We had formed Community Agreements in the first week, but what were the consequences for breaking them? 

In this as in so many other areas, the kids were our teachers. We facilitated a community conversation about our agreements and consequences, and the students were clear - people breaking these rules should be held accountable. Be stricter. So we got to work. We pulled out our restorative justice training and began using that more. We created a draft process for self-reflection after kids have broken a rule and received a consequence. We're learning, always a bit slower than we would like!

Lesson #5: Don't try to skip steps.
It's so tempting to want kids to develop faster. Our society is filled with this impulse - could we get that toddler to read early? Walk sooner? Develop an appreciation for Mozart while in the womb? We are always trying to accelerate. Sometimes this is helpful, but often it causes us to miss the developmental stage we're in right now. 

Take the example of aikido, a core part of our PE program. We wanted our students to approach it with intrinsic motivation, learning because the practice and the movement felt good, helped them become more self-aware and centered, and gave them insights about how to relate to others. We didn't want the motivation of "earning the next belt" (e.g. moving from white belt all the way to black belt one day) to be the primary driver. Yet we noticed that for many kids, the lack of structure or of a next goal caused them to focus less than we knew they were capable of in aikido class. 

We realized that we had wanted to skip that developmental phase of wanting to "earn the next belt", and that instead we had to go through it, integrate it, and come out on the other side. So we announced our first belt exam, toward a grey belt, and the specific techniques they would be expected to master to earn it. Immediately a subtle but important shift took place in class. Motivation and discipline began to improve. Kids saw a path in aikido. This structure will help them develop the skills and self-discipline that will eventually lead to other, more sophisticated stages. We don't want them to end up with their prize accomplishment being a "brown belt" - what does that mean anyway? But if in moving toward it they realize the real goals, as we understand them - that aikido and similar practices help them become aware of their bodies, more physically healthy, more aware of how people relate and how to relate better - then we will be very happy and the structure of belts will have been a useful scaffolding.

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Perhaps more than anything, the lesson here is that we can be experimenters together, taking thoughtful risks in a way that leads to continual improvement and to a mindset of comfort with experimentation. We're a laboratory school, and increasingly it's clear that our kids see themselves as scientists in that lab, ready to suggest the next experiment or the next tweak, and ready to reflect on how they're changing. That may be the best lesson so far.

Christopher Balme7 Comments