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'Talent Is in the Building': Our Quest to Uncover Innovation in Schools Nationwide

Three teachers on a cross country journey to find education innovations find that their colleagues have plenty of solutions.

At the September 12th kickoff for this year's "Education Drives America" Back-to-School Bus Tour, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to an auditorium of students at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, California. He encouraged them to work hard and do their best to excel, which is what you'd expect him to say. He also addressed the adults in the room, stressing the importance of "meeting children where they are."

As an educator who believes passionately in the power of learning through experience and discovery, I, along with many others, nodded my head in agreement. Unfortunately, at a time when the country has been reforming education for decades, it's still unclear if America understands what it means for schools to "meet children where they are" or what that process looks like in action. Over the next year, I and two other teachers are on a mission to find out.

We're calling ourselves The Odyssey Initiative, and we're touring the country to discover and document some of the best practices at some of the best schools in America. The three of us met while working at a progressive public school in Brooklyn. Although our teaching experiences span from kindergarten to fifth grade and from Los Angeles to New York City, we recognized a similar passion for experiential learning and a desire to see more progressive public schools created in underserved communities across the country. Right now, we're focused on sharing our discoveries on the road.

We just completed a Western U.S. tour that included an inspirational visit to Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California. Students there participate in individualized learning plan meetings with their teachers and families and are taught to advocate for their learning needs. We observed genuine project-based-learning at Ace Leadership in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where students have already designed and are now building a bridge on a silvery minnow sanctuary off the Rio Grande.

We interviewed another group of Ace students who had just met with Albuquerque’s mayor to discuss his plans to revitalize the city. They're currently designing a model of Albuquerque based on their interpretation—much of their thinking for this project has been enriched by their reflections on Rodolfo Anaya's book, Albuquerque. They're designing a model of Albuquerque based on their interpretation of the cultural identity of the city.

We've met some incredible educators over the past month and as we reflect on the things we’ve learned from them, we keep coming back to that initial event with Secretary Duncan. After it was over we had an opportunity to meet with teachers and administrators within the Sequoia School District. When asked to share what they thought was important for the country to know about education in America, three different educators gave the same response: "The talent's in the building."

This tenet—the belief that the only innovative thing left to do in "education reform" is to stop innovating and find the experienced educators already succeeding, identify what practices were leading to their success and replicate them—was such a powerful statement for us. It affirmed precisely what drove us to embark on our Odyssey. We want the country to have a stronger understanding of the systems in place and what practices are leading to real success.

We invite you to tag along, as we visit a myriad of schools across the country. We also welcome suggestions on innovative schools and teachers to visit. We too, are engaging in the very experiential learning process we impress on our own students: Learn by doing. We already have etched in our memory banks the models from the high quality teachers we have observed in this first month of discovery. If you want to 'meet kids where they are', just listen to what these teachers have to say, because, truly the talent is in the building.

Photo via Odyssey Initiative

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