“Well,How Did I Get Here?*” Or … Thank You.

I am not an entrepreneur. I do not own a business. Serial startups are not my thing.

I am however, entrepreneurially minded. After almost 25 years of living, breathing, and evolving my understandings of creativity–from self-expressive to problem solving to problem finding and the applied creativity of design–I’ve come to enjoy the risks of starting new things, the energy of associated with that, and the leadership and navigational skills that help shift that energy into more sustainable channels.

This “penchant” I have developed for understanding the creative act as a means of making the world a better place has led me to places I’d not thought English teachers belonged…at least not when I first started. Design conferences, presentations with art teachers (more here), on the boards of amazing educational projects, Educons. There’s something about this journey that even though I am tired, pulls me along and urges me to the next good thing.

And that “something?” It’s the people. And not only the students. It’s the people around the world I’ve been able to meet and converse with about ideas and concepts that were, to a traditional English teacher starting out 30 years ago, utterly foreign. Ideas that eventually coalesced into this space for inspiration, aspiration, respiration, and creation that now drives all I do–NOVA Lab.

Looking back, it all seems to make sense now…the story of how I’ve arrived at this place. But of course, I’m not the first to recognize this. Steve Jobs famously remarked on it in his Stanford Graduation Speech of 2005. But before him Schopenhauer wrote about it, and before both of them, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard remarked that “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Regardless of who said it, what I recognize in all my own “looking backs” is that there is a debt of gratitude owed to so many people. Our lives are a work of joint authorship. Yes, in the end, we make the decision of what ink bleeds onto the paper, but the storylines, the characters, the plots…these are all an act of co-authorship.

And so I offer here a thank you of sorts to the people who have helped author this life. Not my entire life. That list would be exhausting. Instead, as this blog is focused on the creation and evolution of my current life’s work, NOVA Lab, the people who have lent “a little help” over the past five years to develop and shape the story of a class that has brought me more fear, joy, and reward than any other I’ve had a hand in creating.

And so, thank you to Dr. Charles Burnette, whose website, idesignthinking.com, introduced me to what design thinking might look like in the classroom long before I had any notion of IDEO, the d-school, or the Kelly brothers.

Thank you, author Dan Pink, who planted the seed for this type of learning way back in the mid 2000s with his books A Whole New Mind and Drive. Without these books, there’s no support for the beliefs I had been building about teaching over my first 7 years, and there’s no M.A.P. (Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose) for how to get to where I am in this journey.

And Thank you:

To Kevin Brookhouser for publishing both a book and a beautiful website on “the 20 Time Project” that showed me how self-determined learning projects, based on Dan Pink’s Drive “MAP” could be more than self-serving. That they could help focus students on social change and improving the world.

To A.J. Juliani, a local teacher who wrote copiously about his use of passion/20% time projects to drive his students into the realm of self-determined learning and whose original blog post helped me jump in, head first, appreciate the beauty and live with the the messiness of teaching this way.

To Don Wettrick, the teacher and innovation leader in Indiana whose unabashed publication, in all forms of media, of how he was shaping a new type of class, warts and all, lent shape and form to my ideas and whose friendship helped lead me into bold new areas.

Thank you to my superintendent, Dr. Barbara Russell, for listening to and not reacting to the manifesto I wrote in 2016 that criticized schooling in general and laid out the necessity for such a class.

To my English students from 2014 — present who had no idea what they signed up for by taking my class and found themselves along for a ride that was at best bumpy, and at worst an accident waiting to happen. Without their persistence and bravery, the thrill-ride that this kind of teaching can become would not have reached a productive end. (Here’s a brilliant, beautiful example of 4 years worth of projects!)

To Anya Smith-Roman (then and now) for publishing her student journey as she moved through the curriculum of Mount Vernon Presbyterian’s innovation Diploma program (laid out brilliantly here), for Skyping with my students, and for creating so much that is good in helping to move this rock of education forward towards innovative, student-driven ends.

To change agent Grant Lichtman, whose books, especially The Falconer, spoke to me in ways that other educational texts never did, and who miraculously showed up at Mount Vernon Prep (see paragraph immediately above) in a TED talk and helped me recognize the patterns of change that were emerging as I dove deeper into this authentic learning. His optimism and energy are infectious.

Thank you to Doris Wells-Papanek, who discovered that I thought like a designer but wrote far differently back in 2011 and urged me to present on my class at the Industrial Designer’s Society of America national Education Symposium in 2012. Who urged me to think more deeply and participate in several symposiums organized by her Design Learning Network, and who has been as great a friend and cheerleader for the work we do in all my classrooms as anyone.

To the crew at #dtk12chat and #tg2chat–you go together. I couldn’t have pursued so much with design thinking were I not also able to recognize the inimical influence of grades on learning, especially authentic, real-world learning.

To Phil Holcombe, Designer and VP of Design at Project Wayfinder. Phil believed in me when I was looking for a summer job and I told him I thought I could add value to his educational design consultancy. The work we did that summer and beyond has been one of my proudest accomplishments. Too, Phil’s work in leading the redesign of one of our middle school’s library’s was a catalyst of change whose repercussions still resonate throughout that building.

Thank you to Ryne Anthony, Director of Innovation at Fluxspace in Norristown (The Best Fieldtrip Ever! and Again!)–my innovation-in-education brother and the man who has one of the best jobs in the whole world. To help create a network of decentralized, community based educational ecosystems providing teachers, districts, parents and kids with access to the latest in not only educational technology but pedagogical innovations as well. (See images below)

To Bill Corbett, owner of Corbett, inc, an interior design firm specializing in creating inspiring spaces for human experience, and whose vision for transforming education is driven by a belief in community and our responsibility to the future. Corbett, inc not only helped design the current layout of the NOVA Lab classroom, but they are the parent company for Fluxspace and it is Bill’s vision and inspirational energy that drives so much of the good work they do.

Thank you to David Jakes, Author, Educator, and Classroom/School designer whose musing have inspired me and whose feedback on the recent redesign of our classroom provided invaluable insights into what is possible when space is designed with intention. Thank you, too, David, for including me in your newest book, The Design Thinking Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Reimagine the Role and Practice of Educators.

To Patrick Cook-Deegan and the whole team at Project Wayfinder for creating a real, raw, and grounded curriculum in purpose based learning and belonging that has been missing for so long in education. Not only is the curriculum a living, breathing thing that responds to student and teacher feedback, it is beautiful and curious…inspiring the same in the students whose lives it touches. NOVA Lab would be missing its soul without the work you’ve done.

To Christian Talbot, for pulling together a group of like minded educators right before the pandemic to form SocEntEdu–Social Entrepreneurship Education. The connections I made there, and the collegial friendships that came of that provided me yet another example of how important networking is to the Innovator’s DNA. In fact, it was through this network, and Christian in particular, that I was introduced to the next person I need to thank…

Aaron Schorn and the team at Unrulr.com. Nothing in my entire career as an educator has presented as clear a path to more authentic and real-world assessment than Unrulr. But further, no organization, no product has been as clear and intentional in their focus on learning and the impact of that learning on students as Unrulr. As I’ve already written about this at length, I’ll stop here and shift, instead, to the students, without whom none of this would matter.


Thank you to the first group of 13 students who took a chance on a “Design Lab” and a curriculum that had no definite shape or form, that jumped at opportunities, and that ultimately changed my life as well as the lives of others in the class. (See Priya’s testimonials here, and here; as well as Irina’s here…among others)

To the next group of students, almost 60 of them, who, in 2019, risked GPAs and their sanity to explore what self-determined learning would look like in our first year of NOVA Lab. Who wanted to be part of a “collaborative community of creators driven for immense good” in a “space for inspiration, aspiration, respiration, and creation.” We didn’t have a syllabus so much as a “sylla-festo.” We didn’t have a curriculum so much as we had a map (see image). But by god did we have a year! Even if it was cut short by a global pandemic.
* Read our blog posts starting here and just keep clicking “next post.”

As a teacher, I would be remiss were I not to thank Mr. Tom Komp, the chair of our HS Art Department, organizer and photographer extraordinaire. His assistance in developing the first set of ideas (I’ll not call it a curriculum) for the class was invaluable and our almost daily discussions bring life and new ideas into both our classrooms.

Thank you to all the people I’ve reached out to who have graciously agreed to speak in my classroom, to my students, about the necessity of failure as foundation for all transformative learning, the beauty of creativity, and the organization, diligence, and persistence it takes to pursue the things you find most meaningful in the world:

Natalie Nixon–Creativity Expert
Former student Erica Quigley
Asyia Woods–Serial Entrepreneur, founder of “weareherehome.com
Joshua Amrani
David Wasserman
Arne von Oosterom (Zoom Meeting Video on Creativity…at least part of it)
James Lowe, akaCoach Ballgame“. (Video of our conversation is here)
Alex McCobin
Lilly Beshore
Alyssa Sassaman
Jordan Deane and Cutloose Fitness
Will Richardson and the Modern Learners Community
Dr. Charles Sacco & his team at the Charles Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel. (Read about our first meeting with them here)

(I am sure I’ve fogotten people. Please forgive me. Your generosity exceeds my capacity for memory.).

And, of course, no thank you would be complete without a shout to the students who continue to take the course, in spite of all my failings, false starts, and second guessings. Their ability to help the class move forward in productive ways so that they may continue to question why things are the way they are and explore ways that they can make it better? I am indebted to them and their belief.

*Special Thanks to David Byrne who never stopped following his creative instincts and has served as a role model for me for ever since Speaking in Tongues first graced my headphones.

Published by Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.

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