Baseball players have a special place in American history. While the game has waned in popularity, the figures who populated the diamonds dotting the American landscape of the 20th century have a staying power all their own. Perhaps it’s their names, “Ty” Cobb, “Babe” Ruth, “Dizzy” and “Daffy” Dean, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Or maybe it’s the fact that no other sport could touch baseball as a pastime for the majority of the 20th century. Or maybe it’s just because if you could get a bunch of neighborhood kids together with a bat, a ball, and a few gloves, you had the majority of the day planned.
Of course, those were different times. We lived more slowly, read the sports page of the major metropolitan newspapers delivered to our homes, and as kids we chewed stale gum tucked inside packs of cards highlighting the heros and journeymen whose diamond-exploits we followed like a religion.
To say baseball had dropped off in popularity since it’s mid- to late-mid–20th Century hey-day would be an understatement. For almost 50 years now baseball has fought to maintain its relevance and draw among generations for whom waiting is a vice and superstardom trumps teamwork in the name of profit margins.
And yet, while all that may be true, there’s a nostalgia, lingering like the smell of well-oiled leather. There’s something true . . . or that we desperately want to be true …about having a catch, playing on the sandlot, and about our home team, our boys of summer, and the way they represent us. As a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan, I can tell you that the 2022 team’s World Series run drew the city back into the national storyline in the way no other team has…not even the 2017 Superbowl champion Eagles.
Baseball can do that. It has a drama and color no other sport has. I think that’s why I so miss the sports pages of Bill Lyons, the radio reports of Red Barber, and the countless pens for hire whose recountings of games read like comic-book exploits of super-humans. Take this, for instance, from the late Bill Lyons, describing the pitching work of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.
I’d forgotten about the beauty of baseball’s stories for sometime until I encountered the work of James Lowe, aka “Coach Ballgame.” I’ve written about James before, but I’ll write about him every chance I get because he represents everything that’s best about sports, but most particularly, everything that’s best about baseball. What’s more, he is a character, he has character, and he teaches character first, baseball second. In a world given to success at any cost, James recognizes that somethings aren’t for sale, like integrity, grit, respect, and determination. Maybe that’s why he speaks so much about Roberto Clemente, whose story off the field is as good as he was on the field.
After all, there’s a reason Major League Baseball has extended James’s contract as “Ambassador” of their “Play Ball” initiative, and it’s more than just getting kids to play.
I’m not saying that baseball is the only “good” sport out there. I’m not saying James Lowe is the only person doing good by coaching what it means to be a good human being on the baseball diamond and in life. But I am saying that there’s Genius here.
[Genius] is also linked to the word genial, which means, among other things, “festive,” “conducive to growth,” “enlivening,” and “jovial.”
If you have time to watch Coach Ballgame in action (see video below) you’ll recognize his genius. “Festive,” “Conducive to growth,” Enlivening?” It’s quite clear that Baseball is his joy, and that he helps “give birth” to that joy in youngsters and adults alike.
In one of the most beautiful and insightful essays I’ve ever read, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”, the philosopher William James, quoting the author Robert Louis Stevenson, declares that in joy, we recognize “a man’s true life, [that] for which he consents to live.”
James Lowe lives for baseball.
If you don’t buy Armstrong’s definition of Genius or the poetry of Stevenson’s view of life and joy as applied to Coach Ballgame, then you probably don’t watch baseball. But if you buy even a hint of it, it’s quite clear that James Lowe is living his true, authentic life, and through his genius is bringing joy to so many people.
And that is as much poetry in motion as watching Cliff Lee throw a complete game, a Cole Hamels delivery, or Rhys Hoskins send a pitch into the stands.
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.
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.
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:
(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.
In November of 2021 I wrote the first of these “Do Good Things” Newsletters. I was home for Thanksgiving break and stumbled upon the Lego “Build To Give” initiative. Like most people, I have been a fan of Lego since I was a child. But as an adult, the ardor I have for Lego is no longer confined to their products, for what I’ve discovered is that Lego, as a brand, as a company, sits at the pinnacle of socially conscious capitalism. Beyond their “Build To Give” Initiative, Lego has countless projects (here’s one) that seek to make the world a better place. In that, they are also a role model for the students in NOVA Lab where we are driven by two key questions:
Thus, it took no thought for me to jump into my own small purpose project this December and start the PVHS Lego Build to Give Initiative. Following Lego’s simple idea, I put together a similarly simple infographic and offered the idea to the school.
While I don’t know exactly how many classrooms or students were involved, I do know that most all of the 9th grade homerooms participated through their monthly Link Crew meeting, all five of my own classes were involved, and several other classrooms in the English department also took part.
Below is a gallery of students from my own class as well as some from other classes who helped children in 25 countries around the world receive gifts of Lego sets that they would otherwise not have received. I estimate that at least 100 posts were made to social media sites through our initiative.
Regular readers of this infrequent blog will know that central to the culture of the NOVA Lab class is the belief, by now a cliché in educational literature (though not in enough classrooms), that failure is not to be feared but rather should be seen as an opportunity, a chance to understand what didn’t work in one’s approach to learning about and doing things of purpose in the world. For most of the first three years of this class I have struggled to capture with accuracy and agility the learning my students have acquired in their self-determined, project-driven work.
I initially tried regular blogged reflections, but they were too tedious and time consuming, especially when done well. And though they did meet the “Tech Credit” criteria attached to our class, those blogs garnered little traction in the real world. I’ve also used biweekly scrum meetings where students presented the progress and pitfalls of their work over the past two weeks. Again, this was useful, but repetitive and the students were, more often than not, placed in the unenviable position of confronting ego-defensiveness when their progress was lacking but they had to present in front of their peers.
So I moved to “A-Teams,” or accountability teams during the pandemic and our online work. Each week, on a Monday, before moving into their independent or team work, students met in Zoom breakout rooms of rotating “accountability teams” to discuss their progress and plans for the week.
These proved hard to monitor and were, according to the students, tedious at best. My next move? I switched to weekly student 3-2-1 videos (thanks to Don Wettrick for this tip): 3 things they accomplished, 2 things they still need to do/failed at, and 1 thing they will take with them as a learning point. But, even these simple videos provided little insight into student needs and progress…though they were better than most other methods. Nevertheless, getting students to create a library of these videos and store them somewhere that was accessible to me and to the public at large…even if those were on their blogs…often proved more trouble than it was worth for students and me.
What I realized through all of this is that the majority of my well-intentioned attempts to have students reflect were more about me and justifying the methods of the class rather than helping students learn what they were learning about themselves, which is, so far as I can tell, the ultimate end of such a class…and learning in general. Even my end-of-the-marking-period conference documents, while often beautifully written and thoroughly evidenced, were week-long reconstructions of things done weeks prior, and thus largely a construct of failable memory and wishful thinking…never as authentic or real as they could have been.
What I needed was something that would provide students with the ability to create a habit of capturing their learning “in the moment,” which added little burden or interruption to the learning process, and which would, at the same time, create a learning artifact of insight and meaning. For it is, after all, the “doing,” the manifestation in the real world of the abstractions of thought and idea, that makes a “dent in the universe.”
My problem was not a new one. Any teacher who has sought to develop classrooms around the type of entrepreneurial, open-source learning powered by innovative thinking has faced the grading conundrum. (I would argue that any teacher of any classroom is faced with a grading conundrum…but that is a topic for another blog, and for others who are far more eloquent and practiced in going gradeless than I am.) The universality of this struggle with grades was part of why I had formed an extensive professional learning network on Twitter and Linkedin. I knew others were working in this area, but it wasn’t until my friend and fellow teacher in the field of entrepreneurial mindsets, Christian Talbot, contacted me on Twitter that I found what I was looking for.
Christian’s documentation of developing entrepreneurially-minded students through both his work at Malvern Prep and in his own “Expeditionaires” project was a north star for me in developing NOVA Lab. So when he asked me if I’d ever heard of an application called “Unrulr“, I had to check it out.
In early May of 2021, via Zoom, I met with Unrulr’s director of Growth, Aaron Schorn. Aaron has led entrepreneurial, experiential learning camps in Hawaii for years; he knows the power and pitfalls of the method. What he told me, in just 30 minutes, about Unrulr, how he had employed it, and what it was capable of…? Well, it blew my mind. On my drive home that evening I used my phone to record a five-minute brainstorm on how Unrulr could not only help me rewrite the most vexing part of my curriculum–tracking student growth and learning–but could reposition that learning where it belonged, back with the students.
What Unrulr does so well is provide students with a seamless and utterly familiar (think Instagram for learning) method for capturing their learning. But the real power in Unrulr is the ability for students to share their learning “moments” to others through the app. Further, they can link those moments together into learning “journeys” that track a narrative across time to show growth deeper than just content knowledge. What’s more, users can export their learning to unique URLs so they can import them into all manners of online environments.
While we are currently novices with Unrulr, I know enough from 30 years in the classroom to know this: When students are deeply engaged in experiences that stretch them into new areas of themselves, and when they have the means to pause at waypoints along the path those experiences trace, and connect their experience to meaningful learning points (see Unrulr’s brilliant creation of “COGS“) they will feel themselves growing, and in doing so, will tell the story of their growth in ways that are authentic, insightful, and, as they are now fond of saying, “Real.” Such assessment of this type of learning is far more useful to me and to them than using a test, a blog post, or even a marking-period conference could be.
Here is a look at some of these learning journeys
Below I’ve linked to several student journeys crafted over the past few months that represent our first attempts at telling our stories of learning in this class. They are beautiful, insightful, useful artifacts of learning that we could not have created without Unrulr.
Below: A journey tracking a student on a design team as they get their first deep experience in moving through a design thinking cycle. Each journey is made up of separate “moments” created on different days. (This post tracks student learning through build.org‘s “Build Design Challenge.” See our reports on this challenge from last year’s class for more information.)
Below–Another journey through the Build.org Design Challenge. Note this student’s reflection on where she could improve her work next time. (see image below.)
I also link to a few of the initial “moments” that my English students created as their first introduction to my class and to Unrulr. (See below)
Here is where Unrulr does something no other application I’ve encountered can do: It makes student work visible, transparent, and available for others to respond to in ways that are not only manageable and useful for their peers but which, over time, build a loud, joyful, cooperative culture of commenting–a community of creators and learners that celebrate both their successes and their failures with an authenticity that is beautifully brave in its trust in each others’ kindness and capability to provide insight that lifts all learners. (Jesus! That’s a long sentence.)
And what could be more important in a world so recently marked by the terrible isolation of the pandemic than helping our students (re)create communities of learning built upon trust, curiosity, and kindness?
(Links to these Unrulr moments on “How I think” are below, from left to right, 1-4)
At the dawn of Innovation Lab, in its original, 2016-17 iteration known as Design Lab, room 121 looked like every other high school class this side of the Atlantic: white cement walls, rigid tan desks, off-white tile floors, a stained whiteboard, and a 2×6 excuse for a window. A fine space for inspiring minds.
Of course, this design was intentional on the system’s part–classrooms were meant to communicate efficiency and compliance, which any system tied to efficiencies of scale must demand. And, by extension, the classrooms were also designed to mirror the mundane office jobs and factory jobs that would, by and large, be the future for many students.
Such a space, however, was inimical to the very vision and mission of Design Lab/NOVA Lab. (see image at right)
And so, in 2016, for our first ever design sprint, students engaged in a full-on, empathy driven, design-thinking project to redesign the classroom itself.
While you certainly can read about the process in depth at the above linked post, the interpretation of that work by two of this year’s NOVA Lab Frequent Fliers (it’s their second year here) offers a perspective that is worth your time:
“The initial design challenge we developed was succinct: “How might we design a space that biases learners towards thinking and doing?” With this in mind, the class took on the task of prototyping a new space for future Nova Lab designers. This process started off with people watching. The students observed their peers in other classrooms and noted where problems arose. Empathy.
Why is empathy important? It loops back to the Nova Lab motto: “Why are things the way they are? How can we make them better?”
The prototype the 2016–2017 Design Lab students developed was centered on collaboration and creativity–the engines at the heart of not only NOVA Lab but also the English classes our teacher, Mr. Heidt, holds in this classroom. So the design had to be flexible, adaptable, and agile enough to accomodate classes To make a difference, students first needed to understand the issue. What are traditional classrooms doing to students that a flexible Nova Lab classroom would help instead of hurt? (See first image in gallery below)
While a design did exist, coming out of the 2016 design sprint (see pictures above), the funding to redesign the classroom in total did not. And so for the better part of 5 years, with the exception of a few small prototypes, the question that the 2016 iteration of the class asked had not yet been totally answered.
But in the summer of 2022, the district provided funding and Mr. Heidt and his 2021–2022 NOVA Lab classes made some crucial purchases based upon the original 2016–2017 class designs. (Concept rendering below)
As designers and design researchers, however, our job was not done merely because we’d seen the vision realized. We are now involved in getting user feedback and will be responding to it throughout the year. Below are some sample responses to students’ first impressions as they walked into room 121 on the very first day of the 2022–2023.
“Describe your view of the typical HS classroom:
“Other classrooms are static and out of date”
“Students sit in the same place and stare at the same thing as everyone else in normal classrooms”
“Classrooms feel institutionalized and don’t promote creativity”
Normal classrooms are boring and cramped…some students even compare an average classroom to a jail”
What did students have to say after new furniture came into the classroom?
“This room is bright and breathable”
“I feel free”
“Vibrant and exciting”
“Surprising but relaxing”
The feedback to the new furniture has been unmistakably positive, and promising for the future generations of NOVA Lab and whatever other classes might find themselves here. Freedom, excitement, adaptability, and a fresh environment will inspire NOVA Lab ambassadors to change the world, one good thing at a time.