The importance of context, challenge, and exploration so students find and build on their own strengths

For several years, I had the opportunity to regularly put ideas into practice during the day and debrief them after dinner with my good friend, Bill Tihen.

It turns out Bill is, as I jokingly yet seriously remind him from time to time, one of the greatest curriculum theorists I’ve ever met. Bill is unique in that he is a former AP math, computer science, and physics teacher, with additional backgrounds in electrical engineering, building industrial robots and their software, and two decades in IT at schools. He also taught experimental classes in our middle school a few years ago. 

Bill recently met Bret Thayer, a visiting scholar at our school and a fellow agilist. Bret teaches AP Seminar and other courses in Colorado, using Scrum (one of the most well-known operationalizations of agility). I invited Bill to meet Bret, and the ideas their meeting sparked led to longer conversations on several themes related to Bill’s experimental classes. We’ll start here with reflections on exploration, context, and challenge. In future blog posts we’ll look at pull vs. push, uplift, and assessment

“I like to have the students learn in short iterations that are just beyond their current knowledge or comfort level,” says Bill. “When they make that small step forward, they are ready for the next iteration, which is again just beyond their current level. Taken all together, they can move well beyond where they started.” For me, trained in second language acquisition, this is like Steve Krashen’s notion of i + 1. While it may seem obvious that we should teach just a bit beyond a student’s current level, it’s advice not always followed well. It’s also difficult with a group of students, all at different levels – at least in traditional teaching models.

Bill’s preferred model is to create teams of students which explore small aspects of a bigger objective, increasingly building their knowledge as they work and reflect, and then work and reflect some more. He places a premium on students learning from each other before coming back to him as the teacher. This is a more complex version of i + 1, perhaps a more Vygotskian notion of students learning just beyond their current level by working with a more able peer, or what we are familiar with as the zone of proximal development. 

“Smallify,” Bill says, and then those little chunks of learning just beyond a student can be worked out in collaboration with another student, or when necessary, in collaboration with the teacher. If the students and the teacher reach a point where there is no clear next step, that is simply further opportunity for authentic learning, Bill thinks. Moving into the unknown and letting students see that the teacher doesn’t know everything is important. It gives students a chance to work outside the usual space in which the teacher knows and the students don’t. In this space there is genuine exploration – and quality learning. Can the students and teacher now discover, together, the right questions to make the unknown more known?

Bill believes that teachers should do very little direct instruction. “Let kids work until they get a bit stuck, and then be patient and help them get unstuck.” I picture here a parent at the kitchen table, next to a child doing homework. The parent lets the child work until the child is stuck, The wise parent doesn’t tell the child the solution or take the pencil and write in the correct answer. Instead, the parent offers just enough encouragement to keep the learning moving forward. So, too, should the teacher behave, Bill recommends. 

To help them own their learning more, Bill suggests that students track what they learn in a project journal so each team member can know what the other team members have done. He reviews the journal with students to help them reflect on what they do well so they can do more of that, feeling successful as they go.

Bill as teacher will occasionally look at the journal and ask students in the group to explain what other students have researched. If one team member doesn’t understand what another team member is doing, then it is up to that more able team member to make sure everyone understands. Vygotsky again, though Bill just shrugs. “It’s OK by me if someone already thought of that,” Bill says, then adds, “If it’s part of teacher education, then we should probably expect to see it more often.”

“Look,” says Bill in summary, “every project needs to involve complexity. Too often we make projects so clean for students that they aren’t confronted by the necessity of making a compromise. But the complex compromises students have to make to reach a goal lead to deeper understanding. Choosing between multiple possible solutions requires a good understanding of what you are doing. Having a context for learning that creates authentic problems to be solved, with no simple Google answer, provides students those difficult choices.” I tell Bill that a current term for this is “productive struggle.”

Bill thinks that’s great. And that teachers should help guide their students into exactly that space  just a bit more often.

Next up, with inspiration from Bill: pull vs. push, a concept central to working with agility, and a remarkably tall hurdle for us in school.

Roots of Agile for Education

Not insignificantly, agility affected my personal framing of work and my thinking about how to get work done. My colleague Bill pointed this out to me one day. “You can’t go back, you know,” is what he said. So I started asking others working with agility if they had experienced something similar. They had, ranging from big Aha-moments to gradual shifts in thinking and practice that led to new ways of working. 

So what’s agility? You’ll get different answers from different people, but you’ll likely pick up on a strong leitmotif of collaborative work, completed in short iterations, with lots of feedback informing the team and the work along the way.

There’s a document describing the basic elements, written in software terms, called the Agile Manifesto. It remains an important touchstone for agility. But, of course, agility didn’t spring up out of nowhere. There are likely themes of agility since people have been people. The document stresses (and the bullets are a direct quote):

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

While obviously written for software development, it is not hard to crosswalk the ideas into an educational context. Focusing on individuals, who work collaboratively, and adapting that work as they learn more about it has direct applications for students and teachers. 

A group of agilist educators did reformulate the original manifesto into a guide for education, which they completed in 2016 and called the Agile in Education Compass. It packages agile principles more directly and in language familiar to educators. Some members of that same group are working now on a process to certify educators in agility.

And with good reason, I think. The IB PYP guidelines and the new ACE protocol for school accreditation designed by NEASC are nice examples of why. These are large organizations that are pushing for the type of mindset embedded deep in agility. So why not develop a certification, and work on expanding the network of educators, who feel at home with the agile mindset? If it can advance the agendas that include greater student self-regulation and an ability to manage one’s own workflow, in collaboration with others, in my book that’s a significant victory.

Read more in the LAS Educational Research publication, Spotlight, or follow my colleague Nic on Twitter (@agileinthealps) and visit her web page with the same name.

School Perspective on Reporting School Exam Grades

Every year we put some substantial effort into looking at our IB and IGCSE exam results – understanding patterns, seeing trends and considering where we can make improvements. Each department does an analysis, and we triangulate against our predictions, historic data and other schools. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and each year we get asked to reveal the fine details, department by department.  Each year we decline to do so; and I want to write to explain the thinking behind our approach.

Our academic results are, of course, very important. We recognise that they remain key determinants of acceptance to Higher Education, and offer current and prospective parents some insight into the quality of teaching and learning at UWCSEA. And we are very, very proud of what our students achieve.

So why don’t we share everything, and make a much bigger deal about the results? What follows are a number of overlapping points that explain the way we think about this important issue; there are three very broad points and then some detailed ones.

The first overarching point is that our Mission is about preparing young people to shape a better world. Examination success is a necessary but wholly insufficient measure here – but we know that this goes against the grain of many national systems. We fear that detailed reductionist discussions will be a distraction here, and lead us to focus away from the most important things.

The second one is that like so many schools, worldwide, we are concerned about student wellbeing. Rampant perfectionism, high expectations pervasively competitive environments are taking a toll on our young people (here’s just another article on this How Life became an Endless, Terrible Competition). Reducing any narrow numerical focus on grades is part of fighting this.

The third point is that data hides individual stories. While we are proud of those achieving 45 points (top marks available worldwide), we are just as proud of the students whose 24 point Diploma was hard-earned; or those with whatever score achieved against significant adverse circumstances (try taking exams when you have been recently bereaved, or are sick). Ranking these students via the numbers of the Diploma score misses the point – as any parent who has had a child go through the IB years will know.

Given these three points, it’s been suggested that we should not report on public exams data at all; that we should have the courage of our convictions and just focus on the other great outcomes our students have. While I have some sympathy for that position, I think we also have to recognise the world we live in – that is, the market. Not something educators like to talk about, but frankly, if we cannot persuade anyone to come to our school, the Mission becomes irrelevant. And there is a great deal about which to be proud – as long as the data is understood contextually and without over-simplistic conclusions being drawn. So here are a few thoughts on how to interpret these results.

Bear in mind that:

  • Our students have a broad, holistic learning programme focussed on developing them for an uncertain future, not on nailing public exams. They undertake Activities, Service, PSE and Outdoor education when it might be easy to cram instead – but we know that the long-term benefit it worth it.
  • We are not rigorously selective academically; we look for students who will make a broad contribution at school
  • All 550 of our students take IB courses, with 99% doing the full Diploma. Many other schools only allow the most academic students to take the Diploma. So if you want to compare our results with a school where the select cohort size is 100, you’d need to take our top 100. We’re not going to publish that (for the reasons outlined here) but it is several points higher than the overall average.
  • We allow students to follow their interests and aspirations in elements of coursework and in subject choices (eg you don’t need an A or A* at GCSE to take IBHL maths, like some schools). This allows them far more opportunity to develop creativity and autonomy that we know will serve them well – but it may not maximise their grades

So, all that said, what are the grades? Well, if you really care see here.

We’re really proud to take a broad range of academic aptitudes; that each year many excel at the 40+ end; and that many excel and the 30- end. This is a great place to be; we are a school for all.   We know we could easily add a few points to our Diploma average – but the cost of doing so would be too high. That’s not who we are.

  • Rather than encourage choice, we could limit subject offerings so that students had to study at IB level what they studied before. No new subjects would be offered, so effectively, choices at 14 would carry through at 16.  
  • Rather than allow students to follow creativity and interest, we could restrict the freedom with coursework and Extended Essays so that all students were writing on a narrower range of areas. We could then explicitly teach to these areas.
  • Rather than commit to all our grade 10 students, we could refuse grade 11 places to any students whom we thought would struggle with the Diploma Programme.  Or we could require specific grades to undertake specific subjects.
  • Rather than support all, and especially those who need it most, we could have an academic filter at the end of grade 11, and by various means ensure that struggling students do not take their Diploma with us.
  • Rather than accept students who we know will make a contribution to broad school life, we could make admissions choices on academics alone
  • Rather than allow students to learn independence and an amazing experience in their school-supported independent travel week at the end of grade 11, we could use that week to cram for exams.
  • Rather than require ongoing commitment to Activities and Service, we could allow grade 12s to drop this, and thereby focus on their academics.

So that’s why we share results in the way we do. We hope that in doing so we strike the balance between transparency and valuing the right things. We hope that as they are so quantifiable they will not draw attention to the wrong place; and that we will not attract families for whom they are the be-all and end-all of education; because that’s not what we offer.

Originally posted in blog here | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

10 Feet Tall and Bulletproof

So this week I had several students sent to my office to be celebrated. It is literally my favorite part of the day when a student arrives at my door, with a teacher by their side, holding a book or a piece of writing or simply just standing there empty handed excited to share something special with me..I absolutely love it! There was one student in particular though, this past Wednesday, who had me choking back the tears. He walked in a little nervous and very excited, holding a large print chapter book, and he was super eager to read it to me…and he did so beautifully.

You see, this 4th grade boy came to ASP at the beginning of the year not knowing a single word of English, and there he was only three months later ready to read out loud to his principal…in English! I sat there and listened, and watched him grow in confidence with each spoken word, and the look of pride on his face made my heart want to burst. After the celebration, as he was walking back to class, it hit me that this particular moment, that was orchestrated by two incredible teachers (thank you Sherri and Gabby), will stay with that boy for the rest of his life. That feeling of success, and that sense of pride that he felt in that moment changed him, and absolutely strengthened his relationship with school and learning. I managed to catch up to him later on in the day, after I had composed myself, and I asked him how he felt. He told me that he felt like a reading superhero, and as he walked away smiling I swear he felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof. 

I was reminded once again through that magical experience that it doesn’t take much to change a kid’s relationship with learning. Little successes, some small wins, and a few well thought out celebrations can make all the difference. An encouraging word here, a high-five there, a note or a phone call home at some point throughout the week, and of course a trip to the principal’s office will go a long, long way in strengthening a child’s relationship with school and learning…for us, it doesn’t take much time to do but the effect on the student will last a lifetime! We are all so busy at school doing what we do, and if we aren’t careful then days can go by without us purposely finding ways to set up, or call out moments of success with each one of our kids. A child’s relationship with learning is at the heart of it all, and the foundation of a student’s educational experience. There is nothing more important for us as educators than to go after that relationship specifically, and to help build that foundation. 

I’m challenging you all this week, with less than two weeks to go before the holiday, to celebrate as many kids as you can, and to go out of your way to strengthen all of your students’ relationships with learning…purposely make them feel like learning superheroes, and watch their eyes light up, their chests swell, and the smiles start to spread across their faces. Make them feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof, if even just for a moment. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week…

Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety

-Rose Kennedy

Beautiful Holiday Videos –

Hafod Hardware

Secret Santa

Dragon Fire

Make Someone’s Holiday

The Time Shop

Adoption Support

Related Articles – 

Celebrating Student Success

Learning How to Care

Pushing Forward – Bret Olson

Teaching Through Relationships

10 Ways to Inspire a Love of Learning

Getting agile at school

Almost 20 years ago, a group of software engineers published what they called the Agile Manifesto. In it they outlined how they envisioned working. They focused squarely on people, collaborating with each other and the customer, delivering pieces of the final product in short, regular intervals. 

They imagined that working this way would be more responsible. They would be more likely to produce useful software, they would work quicker, and above all, they would find work more fulfilling.

Several individuals and schools have been pulling this mindset into education. In my roles at Leysin American School and Endicott College, I’ve practiced with some agile tools, like Scrum, and with some adaptations of these tools specifically for education, like eduScrum. I’ve collaborated with consultants and business owners, as well as teachers and students. Together with school colleagues we’ve introduced agility in middle school, high school, and the university. We’ve also applied agility at the organizational level, managing our accreditation self-study, professional development, and some school change processes.

I’m convinced we are onto something big. I’m equally convinced we need to keep working small, in a bottom up sort of way, accumulating examples of successes and failures from an increasing pool of practitioners, in order to share the impact this shift in thinking can have. 

And while agility in education is not mainstream, it is popping up under different names in mainstream practice. This week a colleague shared with me the IB document “Collaborative Planning Process for Learning and Teaching.” Bullet points on the document describe what learning means for the PYP program. Here is one: “Developing students’ capacity to plan, reflect and assess, in order to self-regulate and self-adjust learning.” Parts of the new ACE protocol for school accreditation also read as if inspired directly by agility.

I’m wary of sounding too evangelical. So enough said for today. But explore a little if your interest is piqued:

Agile Classrooms – John Miller, one of the earliest proponents of agility in education;

eduScrum – Willy Wijnands, who translated Scrum into eduScrum and has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort spreading the word; and 

Scrum Alliance, “a nonprofit organization that is guiding and inspiring individuals, leaders, and organizations with agile practices, principles, and values to help create workplaces that are joyful, prosperous, and sustainable” (

CyberSecurity Part 1: Social Engineering


By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

I have noticed an uptick recently in schools moving resources, money and time, to address cybersecurity concerns. The motivation for addressing security issues is genuine, but the approach and implementations I am reading about are less than effective.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts to address what schools should do to improve cybersecurity. Nearly every suggestion will require a change in process or culture, but not any significant financial investment.

Social Engineering

Even if you’ve got all the bells and whistles when it comes to securing your data center, your cloud deployments, your building’s physical security, and you’ve invested in defensive technologies, have the right security policies and processes in place and measure their effectiveness and continuously improve, still a crafty social engineer can weasel his way right through (or around).

Social engineering is the art of exploiting human psychology, rather than technical hacking techniques, to gain access to buildings, systems or data. ~

Physical access to any space is the holy grail. Hacking begins with collecting information, watching people, finding the weak links within the organization, and studying how systems and people work.

Having an open friendly campuses means exposing information systems to a variety of threats that exist outside the network controls.

Allowing students, teachers, and staff to freely move around campus with few limitations or consequences, creates multiple opportunities for data to be collected on areas of the campus that generally are part of the plant or backend operations. These areas are designed for small teams of workers to keep the campus running, and these areas allow access to systems that control things like water, gas, electricity, etc. The plans and operational guides for these areas are not public, but people taking a regular stroll through these spaces eventually collect enough information to execute an exploit.

Maybe the exploit is simply students finding a way to sneak off-campus, but when one group creates a loophole, another group has the opportunity to use it. Social engineering practitioners are looking for loopholes and they are looking to mix with trusted groups of people. Their access begins with a bad policy or the improper enforcement of a policy.

It is far easier to use social engineering tactics to attack a school’s data and assets than to try and exploit the network externally. Not only is it easier, it is less risky. Generally, school policy is granting a person physical access, and therefore they are not trespassing. Whereas any attempt to breach the network would be a crime.

Before worrying about the network, the cameras, and the technology as a whole, it is imperative to reduce physical access and to design policies that balance community with access.

Defending Against Social Engineering in a Friendly Manner

Schools are not banks or government facilities. They are generally friendly and trusting environments. Implementing security measures should not create a panic, and should not create a culture a fear. Every measure taken needs to connect to another logical reason that the community can understand. Here are some ways you can reduce the risk of threats through social engineering:

  1. Let everyone know, they are free to call security and report anyone or anything they see that seems “off.” This means, not punishing people if they misidentify someone. Make the process easy, and make certain security personnel follow through and keep records. Social engineering often requires a few visits to a campus, and studying reports could identify a pattern.
  2. Lunchtime is always important on a school campus. Set a simple policy for business and operational offices to either rotate their lunchtimes and /or lock their offices. Lunchtime rotation is an excellent countermeasure. It ensures that every day, a few people are always in an office, the offices are open so people can access services, and the schedule of activity is difficult to predict. An example would be the following: Four people work in accounting. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, person 1 and 3 choose to do lunch at 11:30AM; On those days person 2 and 4 choose to do lunch at 12:30 PM. Locking offices for an hour is safe, but it is not going to be as popular as using a rotation.
  3. Any closet or room containing computer network equipment, phone system equipment, etc. should not be used for storage. Why is this important? Because the moment a room or closet is accessible for storage, the number of people who will be opening the door becomes unpredictable. The equipment in that space would allow easy access to all the data that flows through the school. A common mistake schools make, is to use these network/electrical closets to store cleaning supplies.  Cleaners are usually very friendly and trying to help people, as well as maintain safety. So, if I wanted to access the closet and exploit the network, I would create a spill of liquid and wait for the cleaner to get into the closet. I might even distract them long enough to slide a small piece of paper between the lock and door jamb. The cleaner is doing their job, and I have gained access to the space after the cleaner is finished.
  4. Guests/Parents should have their own network. It goes without saying that allowing anyone aside from students and employees on the academic network is risky. A guest network SSID is highly recommended if the public or parents are allowed to use the WiFi. The more I consider this, the more I believe that a better policy is to simply improve the mobile network reception, and direct people to use their own data. A school can invest in repeaters and other technology to make the mobile signals from various providers strong and robust. Schools can also use services like Kajeet to deploy better mobile access. In many cases, schools qualify for FREE mobile hotspots. Why spend time and resources giving the public and parents access to limited and/or filtered academic networks anyway? Using mobile reduces the chances of a data breach, and virtually eliminates the liability a school would incur.
  5. Encourage and incentivize teachers to work outside their offices, in higher traffic areas. Teachers know each other, they know parents, and they know students. Teachers also have good instincts for spotting odd behavior. These statements are from anecdotal evidence, but if you have worked at a school for a long enough time, then you realize teachers are truly on the pulse of the organization. Teachers working in school cafes, libraries, etc see and hear more than they would if they are isolated in offices. Setting up conference rooms with glass walls, or creating PD opportunities in more public venues would greatly improve the random and increased presence of teachers on-campus. Remember, the idea is to create unpredictable patterns and to make it more difficult for someone to find a weakness and the confidence to act. The mere presence of staff in public spaces is a deterrent.
  6. Assume a good Social Engineer can get on-campus with an ID check, and plan accordingly. The core group defending against social engineering would most likely be the security team, operations team, and technology team. They should work together to plan scenarios and action plans. School leadership needs to make certain that those teams are focusing on those individuals who have enough skills to get through the external layer of security. Making assumptions that the camera system, front gate ID check, etc., will somehow prevent access, is going to create a false sense of security. Good social engineering requires imagination and creative thinking. Good defense will require the same.
  7. Work with parents to test your security and access. Parents want what is best for the school and their children. Parents also have come from a variety of backgrounds. They are a trusted group that will be honest and help measure improvements.
  8. Educate yourself first, and seek outside advice second. There is a massive amount of information about social engineering. It is worth educating a core group of people on security topics so they can inform practice and direct consultants. Remember, consults will only be useful until they leave. Build your team, and give them the time they need to learn. Much of what people need to know is free, time is the only factor.

I hope this posts stirs the pot and creates some discussion on school campuses. I am placing some resources below, including some very informative and entertaining videos on the subject of social engineering and physical penetration testing.

I am happy to do a live debate on this subject or webinar for anyone interested. Please email me at


  1. DEFCON 19: Steal Everything, Kill Everyone, Cause Total Financial Ruin! (w speaker)-
  2. I’ll Let Myself In: Tactics of Physical Pen Testers-
  3. What is Social Engineering:
  4. Passwords are Still a Problem:
  5. Cybersecurity Stats:

Goodbye, Columbus

Mary Mitchell Selmore, photographed at Pleasant Point, Maine by Charles E. Brown, circa 1901. Selmore was part of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the second wife of longtime Passamaquoddy Chief Sopiel Selmore (Collections of Maine Historical Society).

I write this farewell missive from the traditional homeland of the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” a collective name for the indigenous populations that for the past 13,000 years have occupied the territory we now refer to as northern New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec.

That, right there, is a land acknowledgement, by the way. It is increasingly common to hear such statements in the opening remarks at conferences, protests, or performances around the world. What the planet’s 370 million indigenous people share—as varied and complex as their cultures, languages, and histories undoubtedly are—is the experience of expropriation, exploitation, attempted extermination, and historical erasure that no mere statement can begin to repair.

Yet even small speech acts such as this one have value, in the eyes of many. As symbolic reinsertions, they are the first step in bringing awareness to non-native members of dominant groups that have for centuries remained willfully or unwittingly blind, not only to the plight of indigenous people but to their very presence within our communities.

According to the official United States map, I am not presently in Dawnland but in the state of Maine, a relatively young entity created in 1820 whose upcoming bicentennial has already spurred a good deal of collective soul-searching. To cite one example, rather than reiterate the old state slogan, “The Way Life Should Be,” in looking forward to 2020 the Maine Humanities Council has asked residents to collectively grapple with the question, “How should life be?”

As for the Maine Historical Society, rather than promote the state’s “Vacationland” brand in the lead-up to its 200th anniversary, the institution invited Wabanaki advisors to curate an exhibition that speaks to their millennial relationship to this land as one of leadership, obligation, and resilience. “Holding Up the Sky,” on display through February, showcases heritage items alongside contemporary artworks and includes the stunning photograph of Passamaquoddy tribal elder Mary Selmore pictured above.

The show also includes one particularly disturbing item: the Phips Proclamation of 1755. In order to secure land for English settlement in the territory now known as Maine, the Massachusetts governor offered sizeable bounties on native scalps and ensured settlers freedom in “pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every” one of the Eastern Indians. It was sanctioned genocide, and it almost worked.

I grew up in Massachusetts, but I never learned about the horrific Phips Proclamation in school. In fact, our popular imagination had the story the other way around, with “Indians” cast as the blood-thirsty scalpers of poor, hardworking “Settlers.” And though I was raised in the traditional homeland of the Wampanoag people, whose early encounter with the “Pilgrims” is celebrated every year on Thanksgiving, I was led to believe that the Native Americans of our region were long gone. (They most assuredly are not.)

Despite systematic efforts by colonizers of European extraction to remove indigenous people from the territory now known as the northeastern United States, and despite the devastating epidemics they spread, both the Wabanaki and the Wampanoag people survived. What’s more, they have managed to preserve and restore elements of their cultures, languages, traditional knowledge, and worldviews in the face of injustices doled out through the decades, right down to the present day.

Not so for the Taíno people of the Caribbean. “They would make fine servants,” wrote Christopher Columbus of the first populations he encountered following his 1492 transatlantic journey in search of the Far East. “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

In contrast to the persistent view that celebrates the exploits of an intrepid explorer who opened new trade routes for Europe, historical documents have revealed that Columbus was also a slave trader who inaugurated an era of brutal usurpation and genocide.

This is hardly breaking news. Even as my elementary school teacher had us memorizing, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” over 100 Native delegates gathered at the United Nations offices in Geneva to confront the navigator’s legacy of violence. Among other important outcomes of this conference, it was resolved “to observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an international day of solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”

Writing in 1977, artist and poet Jimmie Durham stated optimistically that “from now on, children all over the world will learn the true story of American Indians on Columbus Day instead of a pack of lies about three European ships.”*

Sadly, the world has been slow to catch on.

Today, my youngest daughter, Fiona, is twice the age I was when this resolution was adopted. For the very first time—and thanks to decades of effort by tribal leaders and activists from the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki Nations—Fiona and her classmates celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past October, after Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill into law.

In eschewing the federal Columbus Day holiday, Maine joined Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. in favoring celebrations that recognize each region’s native populations. On something of a roll, Maine lawmakers additionally passed legislation this year banning Native American mascots in public schools throughout the state, to the great dismay of a vocal band of holdouts.

Even when change is mandated by legislators, it doesn’t always take place, of course. Despite the enactment of a 2001 law requiring schools statewide to teach Native American history and culture, little had been done over the past two decades to integrate the subject until Portland public schools began working in recent months with tribal leaders to craft and roll out a Wabanaki Studies curriculum districtwide.

It seems the tide may at last be turning. The move to decolonize the curriculum and recenter the world’s indigenous people in our approaches to history is a growing global phenomenon.

While some Latin American countries continue to observe the date on which Columbus arrived in the Americas, a number now refer to it as Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) or some variation on “Day of Respect of Cultural Diversity.” These are largely commemorations that celebrate the region’s native ethnic groups and cultures in their resistance to the European colonizer.

In 2002, under Hugo Chavez’s rule, Venezuela began to mark an annual Día de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Two years later, a crowd of activists toppled a statue of Cristóbal Colón, as the Italian mariner is known in Caracas.

All the same, monuments to the man continue to enjoy a place of privilege in public spaces around the world. An online “Columbus Monuments Page” lists over 600 such statues in approximately 30 countries throughout the Americas and in Europe. Toppling all of them would take a concerted effort, in the face of fierce opposition to such revisionist interventions. Indeed, in spite of all we know about his crimes against humanity, Columbus continues to enjoy widespread admiration among a powerful contingent who credit him with launching the Age of Discovery.

Fiona Hilley (8), my daughter, agreed to pose as Christopher Columbus when a crew member onboard a replica of the explorer’s flagship Santa Maria offered her the chance. Antics naturally ensued.

Miseducation onboard the Santa María

One gorgeous September afternoon this past fall, a month before Maine celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I brought my daughters down to Portland’s waterfront, having learned that a replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Nao Santa María, would spend three days docked at the wharf. Warning Ava and Fiona at the outset that our visit onboard the three-masted vessel was not about paying homage, I enlisted their help in a mission to examine how the ship’s history was being represented to visitors.

One of the first panels we encountered declared the Santa María “the most famous ship in universal history” and explained that the replica was constructed in Huelva, Spain (as the original had been) “with the objective of reliving history.” I wondered how the slain Taíno would feel about reliving their people’s genocide.

Timed to coincide with the 525th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in “America,” the contemporary voyage celebrates the role of Spanish ships that “opened routes” of “communication and mutual knowledge” and led to “mutual encounters and meetings.” Everything, it seems, took place on perfectly mutual terms, according to the Nao Victoria Foundation that financed this initiative.

As we made our way through the dim hull, we read about how “unbreathable” the space would have been in the 15th century. Not a single sign indicated, however, that the human cargo Columbus carried back to Spain could have been subjected to these extreme conditions. In fact, none of the navigator’s activities in the New World were discussed at all.

Back on deck, I asked a crew member to fill in the blanks left by the spotty exhibition. She was visibly uncomfortable as she referred, in passing, to the “less good impacts on the indigenous people” of Columbus’s voyages. Claiming ignorance on the subject, the veteran sailor suggested we do something more fun for the kids and she let them ring the ship’s bell. Then, in the hushed tones of a co-conspirator, the middle-aged woman asked if my girls would like to don the navigator’s faux fur-lined red robe and floppy hat. Visitors typically pay US$5 a pop for the privilege, but our guide was willing to forego the fee if a game of dress-up could get me to stop asking questions.

The whole trippy experience called to mind one of my all-time favorite movies, Goodbye, Lenin!, a 2003 German film by Wolfgang Becker about the psychological challenges involved in transitioning from a particular worldview to a radically different one. It’s October 1989 when Christiane, an East German woman deeply devoted to the socialist cause, falls into a coma. When she awakes eight months later, everything has changed, only Christiane doesn’t know it thanks to increasingly desperate efforts by her son to shield her from the realization that communism has fallen along with the Berlin Wall and her entire way of life.

Between the Santa María’s sparse infographics and its numerous theatrical props, I couldn’t help but feel that, rather than educate young visitors, children were being implicated in an elaborate and increasingly hard-to-maintain fiction, as if, like Becker’s coma survivor, they were too frail to handle the truth.

The reality is, we educators are all too often the fragile ones.

As Fiona demonstrated, if you give a kid a costume, she’s likely to play dress up, even when morally opposed to what it symbolizes. If we ask our students to memorize a catchy rhyme, they will be able to repeat it for the rest of their lives, whether or not it accurately reflects reality. And if we teach our students a mythology rather than give them the tools to critically interrogate history, we’re sure to be hearing from them in years to come.

The girls and I followed up our Santa María experience with a corrective visit to “Holding Up the Sky.”

*In the original print version of this article, Jimmie Durham was characterized as a “Cherokee artist and poet”; this reference has been removed, as Durham’s claim to Native American heritage has been contested.

Do I Have a Choice?

So when I was a kid I didn’t have much choice in what I learned in school. I remember clearly as a whole class having to read the same books and to write about the same things, and having to do the same math worksheets, and having to research the same topics in Social Studies, and even having to do the exact same science experiments. I remember never being able to choose my own partner and I absolutely remember being forced to play the clarinet in 6th grade when all I wanted to do was to play the drums! I also remember not being very interested in any of it. 

As far as I can remember I had no personal connection or choice in anything that I was learning when I was a kid, and I always felt like I was being forced to learn things that I had no desire to learn. Thank goodness for recess and sports and after school activities where I could finally get a little control back in my life. There was however, this one amazing year when I was in 5th grade, and I had a teacher (Ms. Lumsden) who let us all choose our own just right books to read, and who allowed us to write about topics that were important and meaningful to us, and to research anything we wanted in our current events unit, and she even let us design our own science experiment to share with the class…and I could choose my own partner if I wanted! That was easily the best year of my school life, and the year where I actually remember the book that I read, and the experiment that I designed, and the essay that I wrote about baseball…funny enough, It’s also the teacher who I connected with the most, and the one who I felt truly knew me as a young person…man I loved Ms. Lumsden and I loved 5th grade!

Anyway, I’m writing about this because we have been working very hard as a school over the past couple of years to find ways to give our students more voice and choice in their learning, and lately I’ve been noticing it everywhere I look. I see it in our Math stations where kids get to choose which games they play, I see it in our literacy workshops with kids choosing their own just right books and writing about topics that deeply interest them, I see it in our Inspiration Projects where kids go after a passion that they are keen to research and present, and I see it in our science and maker-space programs where kids are given choice in the areas of environmental stewardship, school service, and creative design. In music, kids are able to choose the instruments that they want to play, and in PE students are often able to design their own activities. In Art kids are choosing what materials they use and how they want to represent their learning, and in French students are able to choose the roles that they play in their green screen skits, and they write their own scripts…student choice is literally everywhere! 

You know what, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen our students more engaged and joyful in their learning, and when looking at student data I am seeing an increase in student achievement as well…but the best part of it all is when I pop into classrooms and ask kids about what they truly love about their school experience, they consistently talk to me about the choice that they are given throughout the day. It’s been validating for us to have recently attended conferences and worked with consultants who are championing student voice and choice as a way to deeply engage kids in their learning, and I’m thrilled that our new strategic plan is connected strongly to this purpose…so good. 

Finally, I understand that we can’t give students choice in every activity and experience throughout the day, and I am acutely aware that there is a time and a place for direct teacher instruction and whole class activities. What I am celebrating is the attention that we are paying as a school to finding places across our programs to give students more voice and choice in their learning, and to inspire our students to take more ownership of their total educational experience. I’m asking you all this week to look for ways to give kids choice if you can, where and when it’s appropriate, and then watch as the joy and engagement explodes all around you. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…

The necessity of creation is the sovereign power of choice

– Sunday Adelaja

Inspiring Videos-

Call Someone

Fred Rogers Speech

Returning the Favor 

E.T. Returns

Happy Thanksgiving

Related Articles –

The Benefits of Choice

Student Voice and Choice

Why Choice Matters

The Power of Choice

Voice and Choice