The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 169 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: In almost every conversation I have with another educator—as long as we have the luxury of time to let our thoughts wander around some—we end up at a place where we start to fantasize. In talking about problems and challenges of teaching, or of school in general, one of us will say something like, “If only we had more time in the day with students,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if students could just work on big, long-term projects that really meant something to them?” or “I would love to get students out in the community, solving real problems and making a real impact.”
Usually, the fantasy dissolves after a few seconds, when the dreamer remembers the limitations placed on them by standardized tests, lockstep schedules, pacing guides, and grading expectations, a set of constraints that all fall under the umbrella of The Way We’ve Always Done Things. Most people locked in these systems have dreams of how things could get better, but they have no idea where to start.
Some teachers figure it out by building a school-within-a-school, like the three who started the Apollo School, a three-hour interdisciplinary program at a high school in York, Pennsylvania—I interviewed them back in 2017, in episode 62, and they’re still going strong today. Others do it within a single class period, like Indiana teacher Don Wettrick did with his Innovation class—that was also 2017, episode 83.
Other people go even further and start from scratch, building a whole new school with the fantasy at the center, rather than forcing the fantasy to work around existing limitations. Today we’ll be looking at a school like that: Philadelphia’s Revolution School. Currently nearing the end of its second school year, this high school is the end product of a group of brave, forward-thinking educators who saw what education could be, and instead of trying to work within the system, asked themselves, “Why don’t we just build it?”
I’ll be talking to three people from Revolution: Henry Fairfax, who is Revolution’s Head of School, Jane Shore, their Head of Research and Innovation, and Mike Pardee, one of Revolution’s Master Educators.
I want to be clear about why I’m dedicating a whole episode of my podcast to this one school, because I realize that almost everyone listening is in a situation where they can’t necessarily replicate what this school is doing. It would be understandable if you listened to what they’re doing and thought, well that sounds great, but it’s basically impossible in my district. I’m sharing what this school is doing because I want you to start thinking about ways you could do something kind of like this, how you might be able to reconfigure some part of your school day, collaborate with other teachers, reach out for community partnerships and at the very least brainstorm some possibilities. Although this exact thing may not be doable—at least maybe not in the near future—in your school it might look like an elective, a two-hour combined class, a special program within your school, or even a summer program you might launch together with a few other teachers, as Mike Pardee puts it, a group of “crazy innovative people who are willing to take such a leap.”
My hope is to get you thinking about what your leap might look like.
One last thing before we dig in: I’d like to thank Studyo for sponsoring this episode. Today by Studyo is a free add-on to Google Classroom which allows students to track and plan all of their classwork, with tools that allow students to estimate how much time a task will take and dividing larger tasks into smaller ones. Teachers can also track how each student is handling their workload over time. This is a valuable tool to share with parents during parent-teacher meetings to help each student plan their work and pace themselves for longer-term projects. Coaching students on being better organized has a direct impact on their grades as well as their long-term success and together, we can make a difference! Today is free for individual teachers; school and district plans come with added features like timetable import, student-entered tasks, and LMS integrations. Visit studyo.co/pedagogy to create your free account now and get your students planning!
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Now here’s my interview with Henry Fairfax, Mike Pardee, and Jane Shore of Revolution School.
GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome you all from the Revolution School. I’m going to ask you each to introduce yourselves and let us know who you are and what you do for the school.
FAIRFAX: My name is Henry Fairfax. It’s awesome to be here with my teammates, and thank you for having us. I am the head of school at Revolution School. I’ve been here since our opening days, Sept. 4, 2019. I was also here when we started our year of planning down at 230 S. Broad St. In Philadelphia. Really excited to be here. Again, thank you, and I’m joined by a couple of awesome teammates.
SHORE: Thanks, Henry. I am thrilled to get connected, so happy to be on the podcast. My name is Jane Shore. My official title is head of research and innovation at Revolution School, and I think, part of the team just about when Henry joined as well. We had a luxurious year prior to starting, we call it Year Zero, before starting the school and opening in 2019 we did a lot of planning and preparation. My role is around the questions that we’re all asking. We consider our school as a part of a larger group of innovative thinkers and doers that are engaging in this question about reimagining school.
PARDEE: My name is Mike Pardee. My role here is essentially to be the trans-disciplinary humanities teacher implementing aspects of English or ELA, some people might say, history, even social studies in a way that blurs disciplinary boundaries between and amongst all those, but also builds bridges to real things that are happening out in the real world to give a sense of real-world engagement and purpose to the things that we’re studying.
GONZALEZ: So the way that I found you was through a completely separate conversation, it was a post that I wrote a little while ago called The Elegance of the Gray Area that had to do with fuzzy thinking. Jane ended up linking to something else that related to that. I saw her artwork, and I was immediately riveted by that, and that sent me down a rabbit hole of finding your school and everything.
SHORE: Thank you.
GONZALEZ: I was just blown away by what you were doing. I’m always looking for, and I think we do so much talking on Twitter and in education spaces about reimagining schools, but I think so many schools just don’t know how to do it, and you all are doing it. I really wanted to put a spotlight on what you’re doing and see if maybe there are pieces of what you’re doing that other schools can try to replicate. If one of you could just give me a really quick description of how Revolution School works, and then we’re going to actually get into all the details. But how is it different from a typical high school?
SHORE: One of the things that Henry Fairfax always says is that we have sort of lyrics that we write together. While we go back and forth in describing what we are doing as a school, I think part of it is really rooted in this idea of co-creation. Our school is designed to be a progressive place-based, project-based, whatever the p is, problem solving, school. We really see the City of Philadelphia as an extension of our classroom. In the development of the school, when we talk about a Year Zero, we really looked to the ecosystem that is Philadelphia to understand who’s out there, beyond our city, who’s out there looking at reimagining school. We began to look at the assets of our city and plan around a systems thinking approach to education. So our school is all about co-creation with students and also co-creation with the community as we plan and thread the learning. I’m going to get the words wrong. There’s some language around the weave, the warp and the weave I think it’s called? This idea of threading through our values, which really are rooted in joy and curiosity of learning, keeping that going in high school, empowerment of the students. We’re also rooted in diversity, and we have some really intentional work around the layers of diversity, the layers of background, the layers of thought, the layers of perspective. As Mike talked about, he is a trans-disciplinary educator, but to fit nicely into the values, we realized, Mike realized, it spells JEDI, so joy, empowerment, diversity and integrated learning. Those values really drive the projects we do throughout the year. We engage in three projects, so students are less in this block, this one-hour block of the class. Frequently the theme drives the courses together and the learning together, and we engage in work, prior to COVID, really out and about in the city. During COVID, it’s thematically integrated into these different themes.
GONZALEZ: I want to make sure that we regularly address how, because if I’m remembering this right, you launched your first ninth grade glass in the fall of 2019, correct?
FAIRFAX: That is correct.
GONZALEZ: Which when I saw that date, it just broke my heart for you. You got a few months in, and then bam.
FAIRFAX: Yeah. It broke our hearts too, and then I think you have to change your lens and say, okay, where are the opportunities in this moment? Just being a scrappy startup and having to adjust and recalibrate based on the circumstance that you’re presented. I think one way of looking at challenges is just that, to say it’s a challenge, how are we going to get through it? The other way is to say, okay, what opportunities can we unpack? I give the team a ton of credit for being able to shift and make some adjustments as we found ourselves in the pandemic. As Jane was describing, our executing school, pre-pandemic, we spent 40 percent of our time outside of the traditional school building. We’re located at 3033 W. Glenwood, so that’s our lab. But our real lab is the City of Philadelphia, as Jane did a great job describing. The other 40 percent of that time would be out and about, studying the neighborhoods and engaging different projects with different co-creators and partners that we were connected to.
GONZALEZ: When you started in the fall of 2019, how big was that first class? And you only start with ninth-graders, correct? People can’t come in at 11th grade or whatever. You start with a group of ninth-graders?
FAIRFAX: We actually started with 16 students, ninth-graders, from 15 different ZIP codes.
FAIRFAX: So Jane alluded to our focus and interest in being an authentically diverse learning community, so we could start with the really, really diverse community geographically, racially, ethnically. We had a lot of learning styles. That was really exciting and also, if we’re being honest, something that we had to navigate and we still find ourselves navigating. To answer that second part of your question, we do admit ninth and 10th right now. Each year, our idea was to add a grade, so we started with ninth graders, so we focused on that ninth grade class, and then this past recruiting cycle we had nine and 10, and so now we’re seeing applications for 11th grade. So long as we have all of the, and we’ll get into this I suspect at some point, but to start a private academic school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you have to be licensed with the department of education. Part of the criteria is making sure that, are you recruiting for ninth grade? Okay, you’re recruiting for ninth and 10th grade, so you have to get your supplemental and renewal application each year just to make sure that you’re complying with the regulations of the Department of Education.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So right now, how many active students do you have enrolled?
FAIRFAX: Actively, we have 17 students that we have enrolled, and next year we’re targeting somewhere between 20 and 25. What we’ve realized is you have to be really intentional and thoughtful about how you compose and build out your class. I’m a really, really big believer of, and I think the team is appreciative of this, you’re not going to get a second chance to build school culture. So that is something that we’ve really, really focused on. You found yourself balance and proof of concept, what happens to the Revolution School graduate. You want to balance that with the right composition of the student body that fit those JEDI core values that we called out.
GONZALEZ: I have so many other logistical questions, but I want to put that on pause for a second and get back into sort of the curriculum. But this does give me a picture of a pretty small group that you’re working with right now, which explains why I saw a lot of the same kids in the pictures.
SHORE: Yeah. Absolutely. If I could add something, I think one of the things that’s been really important in our creating and co-creating the school and rooted in culture is to recognize the humans that are part of this. It seems really sort of basic. Of course we’re recognizing the humans, but when Henry talks about remaining small, it’s been really important to connect with not only the students but the families and the neighborhood. And staying small allows us for those critical connections and that intertwining of their story with ours because we have a group of really brave, these are students that jumped into a founding school.
SHORE: To founding a school, and we tell them, we talk to them about that all the time, that their role, very much like an entrepreneur in any setting is they’re designing the culture with us, they’re designing what’s happening. It’s important, and it has remained important to keep an eye on that and keep ourselves cohesive and community-focused.
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the curriculum. How does it work? Where does it come from? And the question that I know is on the minds of a lot of listeners is how do you address the need to meet state standards?
PARDEE: Great questions, great questions.
GONZALEZ: Starts with a laugh.
PARDEE: Well, no. Just because we are engaged in a paradigm shift here, right?
PARDEE: We have a slightly different approach to pedagogy and curriculum than state standards necessarily often entail. So it’s a work of art to build the bridges between what was and what will be, and that’s the enterprise that we’re engaged in right now in both honoring, and we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. It matters to us that we deliver academically enriched curricular education that prepares kids for college or whatever beyond. But by the same token, we want to do it in ways that leverage their passions and interests and connect with them in ways that I no longer found most conventional educational approaches, especially in secondary school, doing. One thing I would say on the theme of curriculum is each year the staffulty, and we use that word consciously, the faculty and staff, agree on curricular themes or project lanes, we call them. I’ll tell you what ours are this year, for instance.
PARDEE: Right now we’ve just begun our deep dive into water. Water will be the central theme that every single disciplinary course at Revolution will engage with in some way or another. Today in humanities we were reading excerpts from Thoreau’s “Walden.” Soon we’ll be reading the short story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. We talked about the myth of Narcissus, but the science classes are looking at water through a much more scientific lens. Even math project lane is working on water-related numerical issues. In the second trimester here, we focused on the future of humans and machine. Both humanistic-ally and also in the more STEM-ier subject you can perhaps imagine all the coding and futuristic. I’m sorry that I’m speaking mostly about the course that I teach, but I happen to know that we read Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” for instance, for a futuristic dystopian novel. Then in the fall, we had what we thought was a pretty cool theme, going viral. It actually had three strands to it. There was a strand that was obviously about the virus.
PARDEE: I don’t know if you’re even aware that there was a pandemic that hit Philadelphia in the year 1793.
PARDEE: And there’s a significant Philadelphia-based novel called “Fever 1793” that we started with in some way. We looked at the virology of the pandemic. We also looked at the politics and persuasion in social media and what it means to go viral in the political sphere, which was extremely relevant obviously during the election that was taking place this fall, because going viral was happening in the fall. Then lastly the whole anti-racist, Black Lives Matter movement and the sort of viral progression of that from not that long ago Colin Kaepernick was being criticized for taking a knee, and by now, if athletes don’t take a knee before certain athletic events, they’re almost criticized. So these are themes that we trans-disciplinary interact with and synergies with each other to give a lens through which we approach just the standard learning targets and skills and competencies that a state curriculum or other standards are geared toward.
GONZALEZ: So every trimester, it sounds like, because it’s three separate themes throughout a school year. If I am a person in your school who is then responsible for science, if I am a science teacher.
GONZALEZ: Where do I go from that point? Once the theme has been chosen, and obviously it sounds like that’s chosen by some sort of a collaborative effort.
GONZALEZ: Do I then go to my standards by myself? Or do I go with students to co-create what the semester is going to look like within that theme?
PARDEE: I think some of both, okay? Because the fact is that there are going to be more and better co-creating opportunities with 11th and 12th graders than there might be with ninth and 10th graders, right? And I actually, we’re on the cusp now. We do have one 11th grader enrolled, and he is already becoming a more active co-creator curricularly and pedagogically than any of the ninth and 10th graders are just by virtue of his self-knowledge and his exposure to this pedagogy for a couple of years. He’s starting to discern where his passions lie and what are the most effective ways to reach him curricularly.
PARDEE: So we all have our learning targets, and we all have our academic goals that need to be developed, but in some cases, it doesn’t matter what you’re studying in order to accomplish those things. I think increasingly as we spiral through our curriculum, students will be taking more and more ownership of, and I think Jane at some point will discuss the Revolution project idea in a little bit more detail. But it kind of ends with a capstone type, more independent, student-generated project that really is about them.
FAIRFAX: I just wanted to raise one of the things that Mike shared and just give a little bit of context. He talked about ninth and 10th versus 11th and 12th. And I think one of the things we’ve learned, if I was observing Revolution or thinking about starting something in the spirit of Revolution or some of the other PBL schools that are doing awesome work, one of the things that I would share is there’s a great deal of scaffolding, especially if you’re recruiting as diverse an audience as we are. So I think it’s really important to make sure that in that ninth and 10th grade year, do students have the foundational skills and tools? And I’ve learned a lot from our staffulty about how important that is with regard to your admissions process and making sure that you’re able to differentiate and ways that are going to happen as you traverse the experience programmatically. So I do think that’s a really important point that I just wanted to make sure we raised.
SHORE: Yeah. I wanted to add too, you were asking about co-creation, and certainly co-creation with the students is part of our mission and our work and the journey in establishing the work that students are really passionate about. But another element of the co-creation happens with the community that surrounds us, and they are a community, and I know we’re going to talk about this, but the co-creation piece with regards to the work and the trans-disciplinary work happens through program as well as outside of the classroom. For example, Mike was talking about the going viral theme. One of the projects that the students engaged in worked with a local organization called PhillyCAM. They are an organization that has a mission to empower young people in understanding the voice they can have as both consumers of media, informed, engaged consumers, but also producers of media. So one of the projects that we did had the students learn about creating video, a video campaign right before the election that they called Vote for Me. It had elements of sort of humanities and creating a pitch. We worked with some local entrepreneurs. We also have another partner in a local organization nonprofit called Fulfill. They worked with us to help the students understand how to identify something they really care about and talk about why it’s important to them. And they learned video skills through PhillyCAM, and they were able to create a video that in the end the tagline was “vote for me because I’m too young to vote.”
SHORE: But they were able to identify an issue that was important to them. They were able to capture that issue, understand the pieces, the elements of things they see outside in the city or things that were important to them. The co-creation does happen with the students, but it also happens with, it has been made possible through the co-creation that we can do in our community partnerships.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So let’s stick with this example because I’m going to bring it back to thinking like right now a public high school teacher who’s probably thinking, that sounds great but what I’m wondering now is, which subject area teachers were involved in that project? How far back was it planned with PhillyCAM, and then also were all of the students funneled through that project? Did they all have the same expectations? Were the students also at the same time taking other classes at schools? I think I’m picturing what maybe a regular school teacher is thinking, and they’re just like, okay, so the kids just sort of work on these random projects. What was the structure in terms of comparing what that project is, which sounds really relevant and important and something that would really engage the students, how does that fit into maybe what else was going on throughout a regular day. I probably asked you just 90 questions right now, I’m sorry.
SHORE: I think I can take that but I’m sure one of my colleagues can pick up where I drop. I don’t know. I’m not very good with sports analogies. I have two colleagues on here that can probably, I was going to say drop the ball, but I’m not sure if that’s right.
PARDEE: No, that’s right. That’s right. Good job, Jane.
SHORE: So that particular project, I’ll just focus on PhillyCAM.
SHORE: We started in the summer prior with a plan because we knew that this was happening in the world and this was the big connection. And our arts educator weaves these themes into the work that they’re doing, so they took this up as a project in the art class primarily. And to meet certain standards in art and she happens to have a lot of background in that kind of production. But we would not have been able to do it without the partners in creating the experience for the students, so there was an emphasis on photography and capturing scenes, but there was also an emphasis on storytelling. So it was something that we were able to engage in in the curriculum in different ways in some of our humanities time in creating pitches. The students were taking other classes during that time, so this was a project that they were doing in their art class but it was relevant to the going viral theme, so it was those issues that were being raised related to movements, social movements in the world, or how the movements take root were things that were happening in, for example, the math class also where they were looking at data around climate change. So that might have made it to the videos.
SHORE: The backgrounds were being woven in.
GONZALEZ: So this was not something that took every, all day long for every student? This was a piece of their semester?
SHORE: It was a piece of their semester, and I want to add it was done during COVID when we couldn’t really meet in person all that much. So students, this was one of those moments where we recognized the great value of technology where they were able to kind of go out on their own and do a lot of the filming and capturing and sharing with others the stories that they were collecting.
GONZALEZ: Do students have a regular daily schedule of classes?
GONZALEZ: That does sort of look like a regular high school? Yes?
PARDEE: Yes, yes-ish. We are not dominated by allegiance to seat time per se.
PARDEE: Right? It’s not about how many hours are named humanities. But each course meets with a certain regularity, and then we have some courses or class meetings that might be called storytelling or writing workshops, which are not disciplinarily associated but could be relevant to different courses. It is also true though that this year, the pandemic has hamstrung us in terms of being out exploring the city as much as we would like and as much as happened in Year One and will happen in Year Three and thereafter.
PARDEE: We just have really been, you know, the advantage, and this is one of the ways that Jane’s work has been so helpful, we’ve been doing more collaborating through Zoom with educators like Evo Hannan from Abu Dhabi, right?
PARDEE: And bringing people across vast distances, but physically we have not been able to explore the city this year under these circumstances as much as we otherwise would like. But I think Henry gave the ratio about 60 percent or 80 percent sort of normal-is looking classes and 20 percent to 40 percent exploration outside the classroom.
FAIRFAX: You know, you talk about innovating in a pandemic and having to recalibrate and shift to mean whether it’s Ivo from Dubai or Dr. Allyson Mackey from Changing Brain Lab down at the University of Pennsylvania or Dr. Pete Sananman from Presbyterian who’s a surgeon. These are folks that we would not have otherwise been able to engage in our work so directly. It created, I think, a really dynamic learning space, even though it was virtual.
GONZALEZ: Right. It took you to where you didn’t, you weren’t actually even limited to Philadelphia, and then by necessity, you ended up being able to go more global.
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about the community partnerships a little bit more.
GONZALEZ: That was one of your visions when you first started this school to always really involve the community as part of the curriculum. How did those work? You’ve already given me an example of the PhillyCAM partnership. So maybe if you could tell me about one other partnership that’s worked really well and how did that actually get started? Who makes those happen?
SHORE: I think we all do, but I have been, had the opportunity to take that role, and I think what we really did, I’ll back up a second, is in that Year Zero, we had this original plan. And I’m very visual, so I’m going to give you the visual of three circles. We had this idea that teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community activation were these sort of three overlapping circles, and in the center would be the school. We took it upon ourselves as a team. I think that Henry called it a listening tour going to schools and going to organizations to share what we were doing, hear what they were doing, and really understand the strengths and assets in our city and the work that others were doing. So the original intention was this vision of having these different circles where we would not only be active in the community but documenting it as we went, along with the teaching and learning. I think what evolved in our community building was a recognition that those partners could also be connected to one another to both fuel the work that was happening in the school and also fuel each other, the adults also, in the conversation, learning together and sharing the kinds of things that we were learning, became a real driver in the connections. You asked about another connection that has been really important. There is, and this speaks to other schools if they might be interested. There is an organization called Report for America. They are part of the GroundTruth Project. They are all over the United States. They have core members in, I don’t know if it’s all 50 states, but I came across their work, and they happen to have somebody in Philadelphia working with a local news organization. Their mission is to put young journalists next to young people to tell the stories that are happening not only from the perspective of the journalist out in the world as a professional but also from young people, what they’re seeing in their neighborhoods, that sort of solutionary orientation. Their journalists, you know, the clear change in the work that they were doing was that they no longer could go physically into schools. But we had a program where they could work alongside our educators and plan programs with us. So every week, every Wednesday, we have Michael Butler, who is a local journalist for Technical.ly in Philadelphia, and he works alongside Mike Pardee. And we have storytelling that we do with young people. And what it enables is this partnership through an organization and with the world of journalism, and a leaning into this super important time of storytelling in the world where someone can say, you know, as a professional, here’s how I write about things that I don’t really want to write about. Or, here’s how I edit. Here’s the importance of an editor, having another eye. He brings, I mean a natural teacher but also someone that brings an authentic perspective to engage and create rapport with the students in a way that enriches all of our experience.
Fairfax: And I’ll be remiss if I didn’t share that as a part of the listening, learning, pitching tour Jane alluded to, we found ourselves locating initially at 3033 W. Glenwood, which is the home of Community Partnership School whose mission is very much aligned in terms of that community-facing partnership and support. While we’re not, you know, we don’t share a mission, I do think that we’ve inspired each other in the way our program is set up. I think they’ve taken notes from us, and we’ve certainly had the benefit of sitting next to them. I think from a sustainability, financially, which is a whole separate topic when you’re thinking about starting a school, we’ve had great benefit of being able to sit beside another school that’s about 13 years old and has been where we are.
GONZALEZ: Okay. I didn’t realize you were sort of sharing a building then with another school?
Fairfax: We are, we are.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. Okay. Now that makes me want to ask the question, why not just be a part of the same school? What is it that differentiates Revolution from Community Partnership School?
Fairfax: Good question. The glaring thing is they go from, Community Partnership goes from kindergarten to fifth grade, and we start in ninth grade.
GONZALEZ: Ah, okay.
Fairfax: So there’s actually a gap, and so that’s one of the big logistical pieces there.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Where do those kids go?
Fairfax: Yeah, right. So there’s probably an opportunity I’m not naming.
Fairfax: But there is in our founding class students that went to Community Partnership School, matriculated to another school. We have very close ties with the Philadelphia School at 25th and Lombard, and then ultimately came to Revolution for high school as founding students. So that’s kind of a cool story in terms of those three schools working together.
Fairfax: And you’re trying to be pretty impactful in our city.
SHORE: I also think with regard to the idea and the orientation of community partnerships, many times schools that are located in neighborhoods that include the name community partnership, the community partnerships are designed around supporting the schools. So they’ll have health services and they’ll have connections to all kinds of services for the families and a lot of our orientation in working with community is co-creation of programs. So one of the things that I am surprised we have not said yet is part of our mission is breaking down the walls between learning and life so that students can kind of engage in this purpose-driven work. And what we see in connecting with individuals who co-create the program with us are thematic connections, connections to content and program.
GONZALEZ: Jane, explain to us, because you’ve got the Revolution School website, and then there is this separate entity called School of Thought. I actually had to have a separate phone call with you just to try to understand what exactly is School of Thought. So just quickly give us an idea of what that is and what purpose it serves.
SHORE: Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about School of Thought. So I will say first off that we see the School of Thought as an extension of the school to both fuel the school with the learning that’s taking place outside and also to fuel a learning community of people who are out there answering questions and building community around change in education. I’m a visual person, so if I could have a minute, I want to just explain the way that we walk through community a little bit has to do with we see sort of concentric circles as we’ve been growing community where you sort of have the outside circle as a sort of exploratory circle. We really begin with the connection of humans. So as we, all we’ve had in our vision, this community activation, we didn’t want it to be “we have a project to do and now we need to find who can do this project with us.” We really wanted individuals to know these individuals as humans and that exploratory area, and they move to the second inner circle, and they become more participatory in our work. So we connect with those individuals, we understand missions, we work with one another in conversation. They might be invited to some of our events where we’re learning, getting to know students, and then we move further in on this circle. And this is a made up word, collaboratory, but we had exploratory, participatory, and we get to that collaboratory stage, that’s when they’re really doing work with us, maybe projects. And it moves further in. I am a researcher by training so we go further in and we get to what we call the laboratory. So we’re really trying to continue to document as best we can. And we are in the early stages of this learning, so it is about capturing story and measuring hard to measure things, but also telling the story out so we move further and further in. And the very center of the story, when we really know we have that rooted co-creation, partnership, that’s just story. So we go from exploratory, participatory, collaboratory, laboratory to story, and that’s kind of the idea of School of Thought is collecting individuals that move through those pieces with us as humans first, as partners in the work, and then partners in the school.
GONZALEZ: Okay. I’ve got the concentric circles in my mind. So it sounds like the expeditions that you all take don’t necessarily have a checklist of things to do. It’s more of a who are we meeting? What do we notice? What kind of thoughts does this generate? What problems do you see? What needs do you see? And that the projects can come from those open-ended expeditions?
Pardee: Yes. Open-ended is a revolutionary or revolution-esque thing. Checklist, not so much.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
FAIRFAX: Yeah. Because we want the learning to be as sticky and relevant as possible, right? The opportunity to keep it open-ended leads to great questions and great observation. We talk a lot about process over product at Revolution, this idea that we’re not so focused on what the end goal is as we are making sure students have real appreciation of their process, their individual process and we think the projects that we’ve engaged in bode well for that.
SHORE: I would add to, we’re calling them expeditions. We do engage in a sort of field work. So Henry was mentioning the neighborhoods project. One of the things that the students identified as a piece of interest in getting to know the neighborhood were the murals. Philadelphia is a big murals city, and one of the things that the students started to ask about were what the stories were behind the murals. As a result, we were able to partner with the mural arts program. And again, students engaged in a project where they were going out into the neighborhood, asking neighbors about what they knew about the stories and recording interviews with individuals. They researched the stories behind the murals. I think, Henry, they worked in math in there where they were understanding the measurements and sort of how they worked to scale.
SHORE: And they created podcasts. So if you go on a tour of the murals in Philadelphia, those are actually everlasting. So one of the pieces of our mission also is in engaging in projects and working in the city. We want to be able to have the students do things that are sort of sustainable, that are both a benefit to the learning the students are engaging in but also of benefit to others, to be able to be something that can sustain, and that’s an example of that.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And that whole project just evolved from somebody asking a question on an expedition, what’s the story behind these murals?
PARDEE: And actually, that might be a place, and Jane has recently written about our efforts to engineer serendipity, which is perhaps an oxymoronic concept.
SHORE: You can do it.
PARDEE: Yeah, and in the history of Revolution, I can just think of all sorts of ways that serendipity has been engineered into the DNA of this adventure.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
PARDEE: And there’s a lot of carpe diem-ing of cool serendipitous things that happen, and since we aren’t handcuffed to a particular curriculum or to disciplinary silos in the ways that many schools are, we can take advantage of those serendipitous opportunities.
GONZALEZ: You’re saying a couple of things that are reminding me that I have other, because it sounds like what you do is you just lay a lot of groundwork for wonderful things to happen, basically.
GONZALEZ: You create the conditions under which these things are likely to happen. So again, my mind is going back toward the brain of somebody who is actually handcuffed.
GONZALEZ: Let’s do this as some rapid-fire questions. Do students get grades at your school?
GONZALEZ: Okay. Do they take standardized tests?
SHORE: They might not in our school. We’re not a test-prep school, but we recognize the value of tests. I think that is part of our story to share all of the evidence that is mounting on the benefit to the learning in this approach and what it does for standardized test scores, so all of our students are given the opportunity to take those tests. When you say standardized tests, I think of standardized tests, we’re talking about high stakes tests. Are you?
GONZALEZ: Well, no, I realize that they’re going to want to take ACT and SAT in order to get into college.
GONZALEZ: But as a private school, correct, you are not required to do any — [crosstalk]
SHORE: No, no.
FAIRFAX: The spirit of your question, Jennifer, I think was about like Keystones, PSSAs, those kinds of things [crosstalk] no, we do not. We are not beholden to those standardized tests.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So it is a private school.
GONZALEZ: And let’s just also for people listening, and I already know the answer to this, but what is the full tuition?
GONZALEZ: Okay, and is that for a year or for the four years?
FAIRFAX: For a year.
GONZALEZ: Per year, okay, but you do have a sliding scale, correct?
FAIRFAX: We do.
GONZALEZ: And you encouraged all applicants to complete the paperwork for that because the message that I was getting on there is that people would be surprised by how many of them would actually qualify for some sort of adjustment.
FAIRFAX: That is correct.
GONZALEZ: Okay. When I read about what you were offering, I thought, this sounds so wonderful, and I thought to me it seems like only the kind of education that very privileged kids would be able to have access to. But then I also saw that you have a really strong commitment to diversity in all forms, and that with your tuition policy, that’s a big piece of that. How then, how do you balance that? How do you balance the need to actually run the school financially with that commitment to diversity and giving opportunity to students from all economic backgrounds?
Fairfax: We’re constantly, I think, sharing our story and sharing the important work that we’re, I think, starting to show evidence of executing on. That’s both when you’re engaged with prospective donors, considering writing grants. I think that’s really, really important in cultivating those relationships, and I think similarly on the admissions side of it, you have to constantly share the work that’s happening in the space and how important that work is and exactly how we’re doing it.
GONZALEZ: So to make up the difference then for the students that are not, who qualify basically for reduced tuition, that money is made up through donations and grants?
GONZALEZ: Okay. I guess that’s another question is, well I guess, and here’s my other sort of bigger question because we’re definitely going over the time I told you you were going to need. But if I am an educator in a public school, and I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking, I would love to be able to do something like this in my school because obviously if somebody is able to just jump out of the public school system completely and start fresh, they can do it however they want. How could you, if you wanted to do something like this in a public school, where would you start?
PARDEE: This is where I think you need a team.
PARDEE: Because the trans-disciplinary and co-creating and collaborative aspects of this I think are built into the DNA and they’re sort of deal breakers if you don’t have them. I do believe it’s possible to engage in some field work within a discrete class, but if you don’t have maybe a principal or an assistant principal or some other colleague, ideally from other departments, who are willing to let you take their kid, your kids and their kids, out of their class for their precious moments of seat time, it’s going to be difficult. Once you asked the question, Jennifer, that maybe we want to emphasize that time-wise, we are in a much more labor-intensive faculty culture here. We do a lot more planning among and between teachers than I think is typical in many schools where they just shut the teacher, shut the door and the teacher just does his or her thing.
PARDEE: So of course there are aspects that can be done around the edges in a sort of circumscribed ad hoc way, but I think in order to really realize this vision fully, you need a more micro-school-ish approach.
PARDEE: And therefore you need some collaboration and synergy and symbiosis among some group of crazy innovative people who were willing to take such a leap.
GONZALEZ: It’s just funny because about four years ago I interviewed people in York, Pennsylvania, just less than an hour away from you, and they are in a public high school and they’re doing what you’re describing. It’s an English teacher, a social studies, and an art teacher, and they’ve created a three-hour block of time within their school where they’re doing similar things to this. So yeah.
SHORE: I think we wrote about them in one of our school articles.
SHORE: Yeah, and identifying all of the different work that’s going on. There are lots of pockets of innovative work, and some schools have a harder time changing the culture of the entire school. There are schools in this area that we are partnered with right now, and there are innovative teachers within those schools that it’s not that they’re doing secretive work, but it’s that they can’t change their 300-year-old institution. It’s been literally 300 years old.
FAIRFAX: It’s one of the huge takeaways that we had when we were out and about initially trying to engage the community in doing that listening and learning and pitching tour. We would go to School A or B or C, and they weren’t necessarily all independent schools. Some were charter, some were public, and they’d say, oh my gosh. We heard about what you’re doing, and we want to know how you’re doing it. And lo and behold, when we started hiring, we had 55 applications for three spots in the course of maybe five or six weeks. And these were folks from all over the world, quite frankly. What it was evidence of was the excitement and the momentum and the energy behind the kind of work that we’re doing. Again, we’re not the only ones, but we’re talking about it, and we’re out and about and sharing our story and our narrative with some of the awesome artwork that Jane was able to produce to get you introduced in what we’re doing.
GONZALEZ: She needs to keep doing that. It definitely grabbed me.
SHORE: I love doing that. It actually originated as a part of the work we were doing when we were looking to all the stories that are happening. I think of a lot of these as research. So often the translation of research to practice sometimes doesn’t happen as easily as it could, and the original intention behind some of the visuals was to begin messaging, capturing stories that could be told visually in ways that words alone were more challenging, yeah.
GONZALEZ: I could probably talk to you all for another hour with all of my other questions, but I’m going to just tell people that they need to go to revolutionschool.org, and you all have done a really nice job on the website of predicting those questions and answering those frequently asked questions there. Thank you, first of all, so much for the time that you’ve given me. I just wish you the best of the future in terms of getting past now all the restrictions and being able to see your school grow and flourish post-COVID.
SHORE: Thank you.
SHORE: Thank you so much for your time.
GONZALEZ: Oh, thank you.
SHORE: It’s such an honor to get to be on your podcast.
PARDEE: Long-time listener and reader.
GONZALEZ: Oh, thank you, thank you.
SHORE: I am too.
GONZALEZ: You guys are probably going to get a lot of, you’re probably going to get contacted now by a lot of people with questions, so you may want to designate a person as the recipient of all of those [crosstalk]
SHORE: That might be my role.
SHORE: I like doing that. I love talking to people about what we’re doing.
FAIRFAX: We’ll just keep recycling Jane’s artwork [crosstalk] it’ll represent some of those questions. There will be some answers in there.
To read more about Revolution School and read a transcript of this interview, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 169. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.