The biggest lesson I have learned in the past year is saying yes. In January I read Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human, in which he includes many tips on how to sell ideas and build communities of support for your ideas. One such tip is, when in conversation, do not say “no.” Rather, if you are not in complete agreement with an idea, say “yes, and…” Then, support this idea with ways you believe it could be better. This tip isn’t new, but Pink’s inclusion of it in his book on selling ideas inspired me to think about how often I say yes in my life. I yearn for people to think of me as open-minded, innovative, creative, and easy to work with, but I found I like to say no. I like to be in control. Saying yes opens you to new ideas, which in turn makes you vulnerable to the unknown. If you only operate within what you know, you will never experience growth, innovation, and creativity. You will be stuck in the system surrounding you, whether that be your job, your relationships, or your faith. Practice saying yes.
My journey saying yes led me to a risk, a new surrounding, an education “unconference” called EdCamp. This particular EdCamp was held in Philadelphia. At this conference, I ran into hundreds of educators, who all occupied a similar spectrum- yearning to change education but unsure how. Many of these educators wanted change but were not yet comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with change and saying yes. The first event I attended at this conference was with Angela Maiers (@AngelaMaiers), whose passion-fueled belief in education pulled at my heart.
For those outside the daily education arena, let me paint a brief picture what current public education looks like in Pennsylvania and likely in many states around the United States. My vantage point on the topic of education expands from my work as a scholar, my practice as a classroom teacher and leader, and my new view as a parent of a first grader. I know my view is not all-encompassing, but I know where I stand provides a unique perspective of American public education.
By in large, American public education standardizes students into mediocrity. This isn’t the fault of teachers, the system, or the leaders alone, and this is not true in every instance. By in large, public education takes the passion, drive, and curiosity of students as young children and standardizes it into numbers, standardized test scores. This isn’t an emotional appeal to abandon the tests, though… I know I would lose that battle. This is an appeal to strive for more. By only aiming for the standard level of mediocrity demanded by the current testing culture, many students lose the passion, drive, and curiosity that embodies learning. I believe by striving for more, American students will so demolish the tests that the tests will become irrelevant, silly, and a bump in their educational journey.
The message promoted by Angela Maiers is that all students are geniuses, at every level, and passion-based education should encourage and grow this genius, rather than standardize it. She challenges students to Choose2Matter. When I heard her message, many educators in this progressive un-conference began asking some silly questions: What is your business plan? How does this relate to the standards? How will I get buy-in for the project? With each question, I became emboldened. How silly, right? A business plan to bring passion back to the classroom? Leveling passion-based learning to a standard? Administration buy-in? I was shocked. So, I raised my hand (yes, I can’t avoid it), and I said yes. I was willing to dare big. I knew it was a risk. I knew it would make me vulnerable. I was not sure which direction it would take me. But, I also knew how dismal standards-based education can be. How passion-less the school day is for many students. This educational system is so bureaucratic, at times, it is amazing learning can take place. It will take risks to shock the system. It will take rebels and disruptors. If we are not willing to say yes, we remain glued to the system we are in. I cannot remain glued to a system that encourages mediocrity and standardizes greatness. We need a change.
Angela came to my school two weeks after I met her in Philadelphia. Planning this trip alone was a struggle. At every point of opposition, when I felt like quitting, I realized I was no better than the educators in the lecture hall in Philadelphia that put up roadblocks immediately. I persisted. When Angela made it to my school, I had no clue how it was going to go. I had a very loose plan, and I allowed flexibility for students to change what was happening. It went SPECTACULARLY!
Not surprisingly, when you give students a voice in what they do, the students will blow beyond your expectations. Within three hours of Angela’s arrival, students were live-streaming their genius to the world via UStream. By the end of the second day, many students had begun the process of building their idea, their passion, into a non-profit organization. These two days occurred in the last week of school, when many educators shut their doors, clean their rooms, and largely ignore the students. Ironically, these are some of the same educators who argue there is not enough time in the year for what they want to do. I’ve learned early in my life to run through finish lines, not walk.
Students continued work over the summer, including video conferencing with Angela and others about their ideas. Students shared their genius for other teachers in professional development. Students shared their genius internationally with the United Way during Angela’s hour-long contribution in The 21 campaign. Students continued working, over the summer, on a passion-based idea started because two educators said yes.
Saying yes has another effect. The journey that being with “yes” never ends. By remaining open to new possibilities, you no longer solely control your destiny. As such, not one path but many remain open to you. If I had my way, my path would be straight, directly pointing at my goal. Saying yes brings you to many more intersections, cross-streets, alleys, paths, and uncharted routes than you could ever imagine. These new avenues of growth never dead-end if you keep saying yes. That itself is hard to maintain. If you only know you are moving forward but aren’t really sure where you will end up, as a traveller, you must constantly orient yourself to your surroundings. You build community wherever you go. Some in this community travel with you on this journey, while others keep watch over where you have been. Saying yes is a journey that does not end.
Angela Maiers was chosen to speak at the ninth annual Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence, Rhode Island in September 2013. She told me the conference was willing to pay for students to present with her. Astounding! Unbelievable! By pushing beyond the standard of mediocrity in education, my students would get to share their genius with some of the most innovative business leaders! Angela left the details up to me: how would we get there, how would I get through the school approvals, how I would get parent support. Again, it would been very easy to say no. The students would have to miss school; we might have to drive seven hours in a minivan; we would only be presenting for a few minutes. I, hesitantly, kept saying yes. When I had trouble doing it all on my own, I turned to my support system of educators and family; they keep watch over my well-traveled paths so I remain grounded. I asked parents for help; this new community was going to travel with me a bit on a new, exciting journey.
In Rhode Island, the students met Angela again and we immediately went to work. We had a mission. The students wanted to promote their business idea, Bikes with Benefits (@BikesWB). They also wanted to work with Angela to promote passion-based, genius-inspired learning. At the cocktail hour following the first day of the conference, Angela mapped a plan for the students then told them to go share their genius. Left to me, I would have been more cautious. I did not think they were ready for such an adventure, largely on their own. But, I said yes. What happened next was amazing. The students, in pairs, began networking with business innovators!!! They found a familiar face, Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar), who Skyped with us in June. They were honored to meet him in person, and he was thrilled they remembered him. Onward they went. The evening crescendoed when the students bumped into an executive from Trex bikes. They brought their group together and pitched their business idea, on their own, with no direction from Angela or myself. THEY NAILED IT! Angela and I, standing a few feet away, couldn’t help but cry for joy when witnessing the limitless potential of student genius and the boldness of these six girls.
Having made a name for themselves Wednesday evening, they got to be on stage with Angela on Thursday morning. I must say, we were all more than a little nervous. Some of the students tried to weasel out of their spotlight. We all encouraged them. What happened next was amazing. THEY NAILED IT!! They got a standing ovation. A spectator shouted in affirmation through the applause that these girls will lead our future. In the second day of this conference, only two speakers got standing ovations. Not even the final presentation from the co-founder of FastCompany raised the crowd from their seats. Students, led by their passion, relinquished from the bounds of standardization and mediocrity, inspired some of the nation’s brightest business innovators.
During lunch, business leaders and students from other schools kept my students very busy. My students, with Angela, have helped pave the groundwork for this movement in another school. One of my students said she was heartbroken that other schools couldn’t have the opportunity they were having. Bikes with Benefits, the group these students have formed, were ready to ride and ready to rescue. But, what if it wasn’t about the bike? What if this journey is just the beginning of a long path of innovation, creativity, and passion-based leadership from a group of high school juniors? This is what happens when you reach beyond standardization and mediocrity.
On the return journey home from Rhode Island, I cannot predict where we will go next. I cannot predict the story of these girls. I do not know where Angela and I will wander to next, or even if our path will continue on together. I do not how the many connections I made will support our travels. I do know I many new paths lay before us. Many new travelers have joined with us. As a community we move forward. Inspired by their awesome example, I cannot ever return to simple standardization and mediocrity. Say yes. You will not know where it will lead. You can always return from where you came, but I am certain you won’t look back.