I am often asked the question, “So, how did you get into this?” I can answer that I was interested in this career since my earliest memories, and that I went into education intending to change it. But that’s not what people are looking for. What they’re really asking is, “Why so pushy?” How did I come up with these ideas, and then push so hard to implement them?
It happened in phases.
Here’s what lit that fire. While fighting to keep other people’s kids from falling through the cracks, my own daughter was being dangled over a deep ravine.
The call came from my daughter Cass’s speech therapist. Cass was born tongue-tied, had surgery at age three, and was wrapping up her speech therapy by first grade. The therapist informed me that Cass had been put into a special education reading program by her teacher, and the therapist was correct in suspecting that I hadn’t even been notified, let alone consulted.
“I don’t think she belongs there,” the therapist said.
I agreed. More than agreed, I worried. I saw what happened when kids were tracked into resource and similar education programs.
And I felt guilty. I was helping other people’s kids get “off track” to reach full potential. How could my own kid now be there? What did I fail to do as a parent?
I also felt betrayed. This was my school district, and I worked hard for them. I now had the parent perspective of being blindsided and somehow dismissed in major decisions regarding my child.
So why was Cass in there? Cass had been labeled ADHD and dyslexic by her teacher. Yes, Cass did have a high energy level, making rapid connections from one topic to another. And yes, let’s just say she is “visually gifted.” To top it off, sometimes she talked funny; speech therapy takes time. However, the reading class was doing nothing to address these traits. It was just a place to put her.
I had been enjoying the success of designing personalized learning programs for students and watching them grow – both academically and emotionally. I had just been trained in reading recovery methods, and I combined that with my learning styles research in an effort to help Cass.
I had two weeks.
Over winter break, I taught Cass to read using methods that worked for her. It required taking over the living room. We needed space and textured carpet for the whole body and tactile-touch approaches. Textured paper and medium point pens, writing with eyes closed. Elephant-nose letter writing in the air. Feeling the sounds as they were spoken by her, then by me.
It worked. After only two weeks, Cass was retested and transferred out of the special education reading class. We were then approached about having her tested for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Seriously.
She was tested the following year, scoring 99% on the assessment. By third grade she was reading at a college level. She started college at age 14.
A remarkable young woman, she gives me many reasons to be proud. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had the training I did. How differently might her path have been?
She is not an isolated case. With this experience in mind, I continued employing personalized education strategies, with encouraging results. My “enthusiasm” was not always matched by my colleagues, even the supportive ones. This changed one particular fall after the school received the test scores from the previous spring.
I taught six sections of middle school language arts, class sizes in the 40s, and I endeavored to tailor learning to be competency-based and adjusted to their learning styles. My principal, a very nice guy, told me that he believed that kids often learn in spite of us. In other words, he appreciated my efforts, but stop working so hard. It probably wouldn’t make that much difference.
The message changed next fall: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
The language arts department was called into a meeting to review the test scores from the last spring. Anger and anxiety dominated the room. The administrators were coming down hard on the group for the abysmal results. I was so confused. Sad. And more confused. Okay so maybe we didn’t spend much time on test-prep, opting for more authentic approaches. I had used formative assessments throughout the year, and I knew the kids were learning. At least, I thought I knew. Had I been wrong?
We were then provided with the details showing the scores for each grade level. Sixth grade scores dropped. Eighth grade dropped too. However, the seventh graders, my wonderful seventh graders, had such an increase that the school average as a whole didn’t drop. It flat lined, but it held steady. I thought the vice-principal was exaggerating when he said, “You single-handedly saved the school” – and I still do because test scores shouldn’t have that much power (but that’s a topic for another time).
However, the scores were impressive. My students gained between 10 and 30 percentile points on average depending on the category. Statistically staggering. “Resource” students became “regular” and “regular” became “honors” (much to the chagrin of some honors parents – but that’s yet another topic). It worked! But boy was I tired. I needed to make better use of technology to facilitate what I was doing. I had ideas of how that could happen, and I had the ear of the administration for sure.
However, those ideas came to a halt with the district’s response to legislation titled No Child Left Behind. They adopted a beautiful curriculum set that I was looking forward to implementing. However, it came with a lesson plan book that was pre-filled for the entire year. It also came with scripts. Yes, scripts of what to say. We were supposed to put the whole district on the same track to see how well the curriculum worked. If I did anything different, I would throw off the results of their study. But you already know how I feel about tracks. There’s also the issue of ethics. While I had one administrator suggesting that I could close my door and do my thing, a newer vice principal would come in and scold me.
I increasingly felt the urge to jump ship. And I did, right into the charter schools and other opportunities to continue developing personalized learning approaches. I earned the nickname “curriculum guru” and enjoyed invitations to review products and approaches. The homeschool families I mentored and my own daughters were excellent guinea pigs, and we would discuss ideas for a dream school.
In looking for options for my youngest daughter Heather, I began writing down what that model program might look like based on my previous experiences and reviewing hundreds of studies. I also tapped back into my previous experiences, from piloting a personalized learning program for “at risk” kids in 1997 to helping start a state-wide online school in 2006. What worked? More importantly, what didn’t?
I couldn’t find a school that met all of the criteria. The day finally came to gather all of my research, resources, and contacts with other change agents, and create a model school. I had been synthesizing everything I learned and created the Personalized Education Philosophy as part of a university course. I began connecting with key people I worked with in the past, including one who I took on as a business partner since he had a degree in business and experience as an administrator in personalized learning programs. With a small group of educators passionate about the philosophy’s tenets, we implemented a learning model based on the philosophy to create Christa McAuliffe School of Arts & Sciences.
Okay, so that is definitely the short version of the story. It went through many steps, required slaying dragons in the form of unethical administrators, criminal CFOs, and really confused school boards. In spite of these extra challenges, we created a private school in 2009 so we could maintain quality control to show how the model worked, and we then opened our doors to public schools to use what we created so that all students could potentially benefit.
We were the “freaks” during that initial accreditation review, but the piles of research and some supportive people who believed in us resulted in them taking a chance on us, and I will be forever grateful for that. By the year of re-accreditation, the school had been named in the top 5 of online diploma-granting schools, and it was spotlighted in a booklet put out by iNacol as a model program for personalized learning. From freaks to a model program, the school had arrived. I had my large-scale proof of concept, and it was helping so many people. However, as is typical, the program also felt a stuttering in the momentum in that it had gone as far as it could go in this way.
So now what?
Well first there was therapy. Some things had happened that belong in a different post than here. Vaguely-speaking, a combination of a near-death situation that took months to heal from, combined with a personal betrayal of somebody who was sabotaging the work of several people including mine, put me in the “caterpillar as goo” phase of metamorphosis. It was painful. And beautiful. To get through it, I had to also address a childhood that left me with complex PTSD. This led to a post-traumatic strength that I could never have experienced had I not gone through this double-whammy life event.
I am grateful.
However, one does not get to the other side of such a thing without being unchanged, and this has made me all the more “pushy” – at least when it comes to things that matter to me.
It became clear that the next step was for me to return “out in the world” to catch up with the latest, and it was amazing how many invites I received to gatherings the moment I hinted at doing this – from big education conferences to a consultant meeting on using VR technology for PTSD. With so many options, what should I do?
I took a deep breath and reflected on what makes my heart sing.
I’m eager to be in the service of helping others who have a gift or idea to share. This has included mentoring people in instructional design of their own courses and programs; providing teacher training in personalized learning; and – coming full circle to something close to my heart – supporting homeschooling parents.
It can be beyond the field of education though.
Broadly-speaking, I enjoy facilitating others in finding their voices, healing as needed, and in creating their own paths to their own dreams – especially when this is an individual or group actualizing a potential unique to them. It’s not about “education” so much as about empowering personal agency, self-expression, and self-actualization – hopefully in a way that makes the world a better place.
It also means being a little less pushy; perhaps gentle nudging is better, or advising while stepping back and allowing others come into a knowing on their own. It is their journey, after all.
Here’s to you and your journey!
Original version published February 2, 2013. Updated with new information.
Read an update on my daughter Cass:
My Daughter Wants to be Neil Gaiman, and I’m Good with That