Lysa, Administrator & Educator, Mother, CA
“I would like to see schools move more toward being focused on learning than schooling.
What's really important is not, ‘Did you get an A or a B?"‘ But rather, ‘Did you learn something? Did you have some kind of experience that you feel like is going to build on past experiences that you had, to help move you toward future experiences you want to have?’ “
Lysa is passionate about learning and has worked with children and families most of her life, focusing on non traditional learning methods and environments. She was a school administrator for the last nine years, and is currently most interested in creative models for problem solving ( such as Design Thinking), integrating the latest findings in neuroscience into learning environments and helping herself and others to live creative, inspired lives.
Can you tell me a little about your journey in education?
I guess my official journey started when I got an elementary teaching credential, although I taught preschool and different kinds of early childhood education before I got a teaching credential. I would count that because I feel like working with families and kids is educational. There was learning happening there.
To go way back and connect to my own experience, I went to a nontraditional high school for the last two-and-a-half years of my high school time. That really affected my idea of what school could be like, and what kind of ways learning could happen differently than the traditional system.
The other powerful schooling experience I had was when I went to Sarah Lawrence, which is by far the best educational experience of my life, and is also pretty nontraditional in terms of how they structure things and what you can do. Both my high school and Sarah Lawrence, if you were interested in something, you could basically pursue it in some way, so really they supported that kind of intrinsic, "You want to learn," kind of thing, not just the like, "Here's the requirements for blah-blah-blah course."
Because of those experiences, I think I have this idea that learning is, for one, fun, and also a struggle sometimes. Self-directed learning like that can be hard, but it wasn't what I see happening now, which is sort of this recipe book of, "You do this; you do this; you do this to do that." Like, "You take these AP courses so that you can go to this college, so that you can get this degree, so that you can get that job." That's a really different way of thinking about learning than what mine was.
So as I progressed through my career, learning in the deeper sense become more and more important to me, and that's why I'm not in traditional schools, because I don't think there's very much space really for people to pursue learning that's really intrinsically important to them there.
I was lucky enough to get the lead teacher job at the public alternative elementary school, Monarch. And then, to become an administrator, I did my Master’s at San Jose State. In the program I was exposed to a couple of really important things, especially the Coalition of Essential Schools, because when I went to the conferences I met a whole bunch of other people who were into really interesting alternative, less traditional, ways of looking at education. So working at Monarch and getting exposed to the Coalition of Essential schools was connecting my personal life experience with school.
Now I'm Co-Principal for four small non-traditional schools. I'm trying to shift the definition to nontraditional from alternative, because when you say alternative there's all kinds of baggage with that. Nontraditional is actually more correct.
All right, so four nontraditional schools. The bulk of the next couple of questions relate to a child that you care about. I happen to know you have a daughter who is about to graduate from high school, but it could also be a student.
When you're ready, you can just tell me a little bit about who that kid is, their personality.
Yes. I’ll talk a little about my daughter later, but I’ll also talk about one of our students, who is a senior, and who came to one of my high school programs as a sophomore, and she is graduating this year. I've watched her really transform over the last two-and-a-half, three years. She's super involved with food justice now. She has completely changed her diet. She is thinking about food, and growing her understanding of the whole food network. She's super excited and interested in gardening, and landscaping. She also does a lot of childcare for our younger programs, so I've watched her develop into kind of that leadership role with younger students. I think she has a huge amount of potential. She also has had huge amount of struggle. One of her parents is in jail. The other is a drug addict. She has not had any kind of stable home situation for a long time and she has experienced significant trauma in her life. That's like the flipside of all this amazing growth and potential that I've gotten to see.
When you think about her grown up — let's say she's out of whatever formal schooling that she's going to do, maybe in her 30s, maybe older. What do you hope for her for her life? What would make it a good or a successful life?
Well, this would be true for her, or for my daughter, or for any — I think I have similar hopes. I would hope that they had had the opportunity to do learning about themselves and who they are: to understand their own temperament, personality, their issues in the world. I actually did something with both my daughter and this student this morning very early. A situation arose, and they both had the same reaction to it. I thought, "Oh, yeah, that's really a 17 or 18-year-old reaction to that thing that happened."
So I would hope that they would both learn from their experiences and become more mature, and also just have that self-understanding that brings self-confidence. When you feel like, "Yeah, that's who I am," but also not be rigid in that. One thing I've definitely learned myself is you don't just all of a sudden figure out your identity, and that's it. It keeps developing when you're 30, or 40, or 50 where you go, "Oh, wow. Okay. That used to be true, and it's not anymore," or, "That is true, and I think it might always be true about me." So there's that.
I would like them to feel confident that if they want to learn about something or change something in their life, that they can do that. I want them to have some connection to community and sort of civic engagement.
You know, be a good citizen – you vote and you are aware of what's going on in the world around you, and you potentially want to make things better for other people on the planet, not just be out for your own gain.
I would hope that they would have people who love them and that they loved, and that capacity for compassion and love, both for themselves and for other people. Because really to me all of that kind of learning, which is much less quantifiable than, "What kind of degrees would they have and job, and how much money are they going to make?" is much more important.
I don't know that those things are actually the things that help you move forward in your life. But it's not like, "Oh, I hope they both go to Harvard," because I don't know that that would make you happy. But I do know that if you know yourself, it will help you have a better life. So that's what I would hope for anybody who I know now who is a teenager.
And I guess one other little piece. I feel like they have some challenges that I did not have. Like the whole digital online element of things has tons of plusses and minuses, and I see my own teenager and others struggling with how you balance that out. How do you communicate, "Is this person really a friend who you never see? Because they actually are on the other side of the world, and the only way you know them is through some social media something." Maybe they are. I don't know. But how do they judge that, and then how do they also have face-to-face friendships? If you asked me what I hope for them around that, I don't even know how to answer the question, because I feel like we — or that culture — are just beginning to figure out, "How do you integrate all of that into interpersonal communication, and relationships, and all of that kind of thing?" I think that's a big weird thing hanging out there.
Yeah, I agree. It's actually a good segue because the next question is:
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of her achieving that life?
I do because I see them having these weird communication things happen. Every mom I know who has a teenager will tell you that they don't like to use the telephone. They'll text. They'll do a chat. They'll do a message. They'll do all kinds of stuff, but to have a telephone conversation…you practically have to teach them how to do that. Text communication is a different kind of communication - there are things that you can do in a phone conversation that you can't do in a text, for example. So I do worry about it on that level for people who are teenagers now, but I worry about it even more for younger kids, who I see having a screen be put in front of their face from such a young age. Whereas in the past they would've been watching the adults' faces, and building neurons and pathways of communication. But now they're just not getting it all, and so then I wonder what are the long-term ramifications of that?
What else do I worry about? Well, given the current state of the planet, I worry about , well, will there be a planet? Will they have water? Will they have clean air? And then you have our crazy governmental stuff that's happening here and maybe in Europe, too, and that makes me worried for really basic things. Are they going to be safe and have their basic needs met? What kind of challenges might there be around that happening?
I would say those are the two biggest things: the weird social/electronic thing and the environment. And I hope that no government does anything really crazy and starts a war that destroys the planet. This probably sounds really melodramatic.
I'm going to knock on wood right there.
To me what's going on, and what's gone on in the past, you can't really trust human beings — especially the ones with a lot of power — to make good decisions all the time. So I do hope that that's not too big of a thing in their lives.
This is a big question, but what is the kind of ideal society you'd want them to live in?
Oh, that is a big question.
I think one where being kind and compassionate was more important than most other things. Where human beings could actually see each other just as human beings, and make space for people to have their different ways of thinking and looking at the world, without them having to make it right and wrong and judgmental about it. Where there isn’t the, "Well, because you're a Republican, you're a bad person."
How do you find out what people's real story is?
I guess I would like a world where we really listen to each other's stories and try to use those to understand what was going on for others, and in which we try to be kinder and more compassionate. It sounds really simple and almost trite, but I think it would make a huge difference. My ideal world for them would have more of that, instead of less of that.
I agree with you. Also, that's part of what I hope to be able to do through REENVISIONED: understand people's stories, their values, and try and highlight (hopefully) that we have more similarities than differences when it comes to kids we care about.
Ideally what would the role of schooling be in helping her create that ideal good life you want for her?
I would like to see schools move more toward being focused on learning than schooling.
What's really important is obviously not, "Did you get an A or a B?" But, "Did you learn something? Did you have some kind of experience that you feel like is going to build on past experiences that you had, to help move you toward future experiences you want to have?"
For that to be true I think that there would need to be a lot more choice, and a lot less rigidity about, "You must take this to take that." Although there are some things that build on top of each other, I think the sequence of courses is pretty antiquated and is not really looking at what is going on now. You should be developing the skills and understandings that you gravitate toward, and be exposed to new stuff, too, but with a little more balance. Right now it seems to be pretty lockstep.
My ideal schooling situation would have flexibility. It would be more responsive to the individual learner, and be less concerned with having winners and losers. I feel like grading, testing in the way that we do it, a lot of it is just to sort people out, not to actually help students learn better. I mean, if you give an assessment, it should be to help the person see where they're at with something, not decide whether or not they can go on to do something else.
Does that make sense?
Yeah, it really does.
I think that we could take a lot more advantage of older kids having responsibilities, like job or internship. I see how much our high school students get out of working with the younger kids — they work in the garden with them, and then there's also an early childhood education class we have where they go into the math classes.
We did some interviewing around high school students’ experiences, and the things that they say about what they've learned from working with the younger kids is so incredibly valuable. You can tell that it impacted them in a way that's going to go on with them for the rest of their lives, differently than the class with a book and a quiz. I'm not saying never read and a take a quiz or whatever, but to balance that out more with real life experience. I think you really change people's lives when you can affect something for them on an emotional level, an experiential level.
What is it that you think is so important about that? What do you think that gives students?
Well, I think it helps you learn about yourself, which is one of the things that I said I would like to have that final outcome be. I think it builds self-confidence, which is a highly underrated and super necessary thing to have to be able to go forward and pursue things in your life. If you're doing things that you're interested in there's a higher likelihood of learning how to be persistent. Because why do you want to persist in something that you don't give a care about, or have no interest in, or is so hard for you? Do you know what I mean? Rarely do people pick the thing that is so hard for them to just do for their life — you know? But if it's something that's a little bit hard, and you really want it, and it's what you want, you will learn that sense of, "I've got to work hard to make it happen."
I also think it allows for more creativity to be possible, because you're not bogged down in what other people want you to do all the time, or doing things that might be meaningless to you.
Often when I visit classrooms, I ask the kids,
"What are you learning about? How are you going to know when you know it?" And then I ask them, "*Why* are you learning about it?"
Too much of the time the "why" is because some adult told them to.
Even in like really creative classrooms. And I wonder about that. What kind of learner does that lead kids to become?
You've a little bit answered this, but do you think that school will play or has played the role that you would like it to for her? And in what ways yes and no? Because probably it's not a yes/no question.
I'm going to talk about both my daughter and this student, because it's kind of interesting. My daughter went to four different high schools. She never graduated from high school. She's getting an AA now. Traditional high school did not serve her at all. She went to three different types of nontraditional high schools, and some of them helped in some ways, but when she went to community college, that level of independence for her worked better in some ways. In other ways she'll tell you there are classes — she's taking one right now where the professor's not that good, or they're not clear on their syllabus. She's like, "I'm just doing this because I have to, because I have to have X kind of credit to do whatever," and I don't know that that really serves anybody, except to have that experience in life that you have to do things you don't really like and, "Oh well. Get your teeth cleaned because you're supposed to," and that's not a bad thing necessarily, but, eh.
Then, for the student I’ve been talking about, I think that in some ways education has served her better because of what she's had available to her — traditional high school, again, was definitely not happening. Being in this small, much more individualized high school where she's gotten a lot of support from other adults has really made a difference in terms of what she's been exposed to, and help and support that she's gotten that she probably would not have gotten in other situations. She's not getting that kind of support and attention from adults in her family. My daughter got that help and support because her parents partially could be there to help and support her. I wouldn't say that she got as much from people in the school situation.
Despite the different situations, for both of them the big traditional high school made them feel lost. It's kind of interesting because they had really different family situations. They are different ethnicities. They have very different everything, and traditional high schools didn’t work well for different reasons - but being in schools that were smaller and where they had more self-efficacy did help them both. That's my analysis of that with those two.
The next question is a huge broad question, so you can interpret it as you'd like.
Do you feel like schools or schooling is broadly playing the role that you'd like it to for all children? Again, this is an, "In what ways yes and no?", question.
Overall I would say no because I think school is currently much more interested in compliance and jumping through hoops. If you don't fit into the box, like many kids in nontraditional schools don't, then it can actually be really damaging to your sense of self.
I know lots of kids who stay in traditional high school, even though on a learning level it's not working for them at all. They stay because they're jumping through the hoops - because that's what they're “supposed to” do, and it feels easier. It feels less like being weird and different and going to something else. And so they keep doing it, but that doesn't mean that they're actually learning something in that situation or that it's working for them. It just means they figured out how to adapt to it in a way that isn't causing conflict for them or their teachers or family.
I think if our system were working, there would be more critical thinking happening.
We likely wouldn't be in the political situation that we're in here perhaps now, because people would have an idea about how to find evidence, and sift through facts and not-facts, and have better informed responses to situations that are going on, rather than being kind of like, "Ah, my life sucks. Let's vote for this guy who's going to change everything, ‘for the better’," which is what I think some people thought.
I don't think we have a lot of critical thinking in our educational system, and that's something that we need for a democracy. So I don't think it's working for most people, or at least for our society generally.
This is a big philosophical question almost…
Why do you think we have schools as a society? What's the purpose of schools? Why school? Why do we make sure everyone goes to school?
Well, I think in our culture it serves to sort people, and then also to prepare people for certain types of jobs. Like learning to be compliant. When the whole factory model of education was established compliance was what we wanted people to act like when they worked in factories. I think later we had the idea like, "Oh, everybody should have an equal access to developing themselves," I mean, whenever this sort of humanist movement got in there.
But really - I think Thomas Jefferson had some kind of quote about, "Okay, we'll have some public schools because we want some people to bubble up to the top from those non-landowning other people who are out there. Maybe we'll give some of them a chance," and really if you look way back, education wasn't a thing in a school. You learned stuff by watching other people do it, and learning it from them.
So philosophically I think in our culture it had to do with sorting people and preparing them for a certain kind of work, but not really about learning the way I think about learning, which has more to do with self-development. I guess it would be a more humanist idea.
Which is kind of a segue into, "What do you think the purpose of school should be?"
I think it should be more about learning about who you are, and who other people are, and how we can all get along here in a way that's healthy for the majority of people who are here, and for the planet itself. That's my short answer.
I like that.
Given your understanding of that purpose of school, how is the work you're doing now helping to create that?
Well, my job now a lot of the time is like holding back the wave or destructiveness of traditional education from these little programs that are struggling really hard to some things really differently.
And sometimes I think, "God, couldn't they be more different?" But they're doing the best they can. One of the things that happens is that teachers also have the school experience they had, and so as you're doing things different, it's still easy to fall back into being the teacher and being in charge, rather than the student having more power in their learning, because that's what you experienced.
So what I try to do is support teachers and students in trying to “do learning” in a different way. Ideally a way that is more human, and flexible, and individualized.
Is it perfect? No.
I am having to expend a lot of energy to protect from outside forces trying to standardize what we do but We're part of a school district, so we have state and federal rules that don't necessarily help us to do what we do in the best way possible. But, all considered, I think I'm doing some good things some days.
10,000 Stories. One Shared Vision.
REENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
To answer this, we're building the world's largest collection of stories about what it means to live good lives and the role schools should play in helping create them: 10,000 stories from people across the country. We'll use the stories to learn about our shared values and dreams and to create a new vision for why we send our children to school.
We work with people like YOU across the country: Catalysts - individuals, classrooms, schools, and community organizations - who interview people in their communities and foster empathy nationwide by sharing the stories on our website and social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (@reenvisioned).