Monday, June 10, 2013

2013 Graduation Speech

At the Open School, there is no shortage of rituals and ceremonies, all designed to support and celebrate the learner.  As principal, I am lucky enough to have the honor of participating in one such ritual with each of these graduates, the Transcript Stamping.  In fact, when I accepted the position as principal there was a notably symbolic moment when my predecessor, Wendy Wheaton, gave me the official transcript seal of the Jefferson County Open School.  It was then that I knew I had arrived.

Each year, as I sit down with each student and their Advisor for the final transcript stamping, I get to ask a few questions.  This year I asked these graduates if they were indeed “ready” to graduate? And if so, how did they know they were ready?  Their answers were as varied and beautiful as the people you see before you now: however, common themes emerged in their responses including; a sense of pride in the accomplishment, the anticipation for new adventures, and perhaps most profound was an overwhelming sense of trust in themselves.  One student, Sam Handman, responded by saying he knew he was ready to graduate because he had gained the ability to replicate the Open School in his life wherever he might go.  He went on to explain that what he really meant was he now knows how to surround himself with a community of engaged, curious, and passionate individuals.   

Starting on day one in the Walkabout program, we ask students to trust in this process of self-discovery.  Individuals are introduced to the Walkabout program through the Wilderness Trip, which is designed to push them beyond their comfort zone.  Each graduate here today had to place their trust in an Advisor and an Advising group they barely knew, it was the beginning, because real trust is dependent upon meaningful relationships.  Consider: as William Shakespeare so wisely observed, “Trust is a relationship of reliance.”  Shakespeare’s definition captures the essence of the Open School and provides explanation for one of the school’s great paradoxes: a strong sense of self is achieved through reliance on relationships within a community of learners.   

As students engage in the Walkabout program, endeavoring to complete the six Passages, a trusting relationship with the Advisor is paramount.  To quote Shakespeare again, and I will modify the quote slightly here for effect, "an Advisor (friend) is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow."  It is through the advisor - advisee relationship that graduates learn to trust themselves as the directors of their own education. 

At the transcript stampings, it was indeed impressive to hear the many things these graduates had learned through the Passage process.  In a self-directed program where students become the directors of their own education, all the world truly does become a stage.  I heard of Passages dedicated to learning the art of Beekeeping and the threat posed by colony collapse, the profound difference between activism and slacktivism, the connection between bullying and discrimination, and one from a student, Amelia Bost, who has taught us all about inclusion.  Each of these Passages were impressive in their depth of academic content, however, what was most significant in hearing these graduates’ stories was their ability to articulate with confidence the profound knowledge of how to learn.  It is the art of self-direction that these graduates have mastered and it is because of this fact that they are ready to graduate.

Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge one more trusting relationship upon which the success of the Open School depends.  Without the trust and support of parents, this community would not exist.  In this proud moment, I want to thank all of you, the parents, for placing your trust in us.  The experiences your graduates have had here were unconventional in every sense of the word.  This process might have been scary at times as their personal triumphs may have been fraught with adversity.  It can be an enormous leap of faith to entrust your child to an educational approach that is unfamiliar.  In the end, however, the outcome, as observed in final support meetings, are self-evident.  So we thank you parents, for placing your trust in us.  And with that, I would like to introduce to you the graduating class of 2013. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

How “Discipline” Works at the Open School
Scott Bain

In recent discussions about school culture at the Open School, several questions were raised about what happens if a discipline issue arises for a student.

Three years into my role as principal of the Open School, this conversation has caused me to reflect on the topic.  One of my favorite writers on progressive education, Alfie Kohn, has written a lot about the subject, in fact his book “Beyond Discipline” is a top seller on the subject.  Kohn says it is critical that a school community be clear about which fundamental question drives educational practices, including practices related to discipline.  He suggests we have a choice between two driving questions: How can we get students to obey? or What do our students need and how can we meet those needs? As a model of progressive education, the Open School aspires to be driven by the latter.

Kohn goes on to explore the importance of respect and responsibility.  On this topic Kohn emphasises that, “it is widely understood that people learn from example.” Most students know how to be respectful, yet sometimes they fail to do so.  In a community that desires to meet students needs, disrespect is not the same as disobedience.  Receiving respect from students therefore, requires that the community ensure that students are respected.  On the matter of responsibility, students learn responsibility by being given responsibilities, not by being told what to do.

“Working with students to build a safe, caring, community takes time, patience, and skill. . . Threats and bribes buy short-term change in behaviour, but they can never help kids develop a commitment to positive values. . . Children learn to make good choices by having the chance to choose, not by following direction.”   

Open School philosophy is grounded in several core principles that drive Open School practice.  One of these principles is that no student will be anonymous.  Advising is a practice derived from this principle and therefore, it is critical a student’s Advisor is involved whenever problems involving behavior arise.  Who better to model respect than an Advisor who has a trusting and respectful relationship with the student?   

Another core principle is based on the belief in the inherent goodness of children.  Open School philosophy is therefore grounded in the same principles to which Kohn refers when he writes: “Most students know how to be respectful, yet sometimes they fail to do so.”  From this principle comes the practice of providing students with the freedom to make meaningful choices.  As a community, we accept that sometimes students will make mistakes.  When we approach problem solving around these mistakes we are guided by the understanding that mistakes are truly authentic learning opportunities.  In fact, there is a recognition that sometimes students learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.  Rather than being a top-down, punitive model, our approach to discipline is in alignment with the holistic, student centered approach that defines Open School philosophy.

With this philosophical foundation in mind, here is how the discipline process at the Open School typically works.

  • In order to foster a culture in which students are able to see themselves as respected members of the community they must be included in a process of developing community norms. So to begin with, norms are established in Advising groups, in classes, or as a school wide community.  In a democratic and respectful environment, children and adults alike must have their voices heard and valued.

  • Once norms are established, the vast majority of behavior problems can be addressed with a quick and respectful conversation regarding the behavior, which refers back to norms previously agreed upon.  I use the word “conversation” because, if respect is to be received, it must also be given, which again assumes the student’s voice is heard and valued.  
  • If resolution is not achieved through respectful conversation, it becomes critical to involve the student’s Advisor.  Having established a caring relationship with the student, Advisors work with the student, either one-on-one or in conjunction with a parent, to problem solve situations and look for win-win solutions, which will maximize student learning.

  • As students learn and grow into the people they want to be, Advisors continue to work with them in a continuous problem solving process.  In support of the student, Advisors may consult with parents, colleagues, mental health professionals, administrators, etc. seeking out creative approaches to help students learn and grow from their behavior.  

  • It is important to note that there are cases in which Advisors, administrators, parents and students must refer to a more “rule governed” response to behaviors by deferring to the Jefferson County Code of Conduct.  This document reflects state law and district policy and will always be consulted in cases involving drugs, weapons, threats of violence, etc.  Code of Conduct based discipline typically involves suspensions and sometimes expulsions.  However, even in the event of a suspension,  Advisors and administration look for learning opportunities and double back with creative ways to solidify the learning.

As Alfie Kohn writes, “Working with students to build a safe, caring community takes time, patience, and skill.”  We know most students want to be respectful and we accept that sometimes they might choose not to be.  At the Open School, we are patient with this process, as we desire to respond to student needs by helping them become ethical people rather than people who do what they are told.  Indeed, for more than 40 years we have experienced the magic of the Open School and shared in the joy as over and over again, we have witnessed students growing into self-confident, caring, and contributing members of society.      

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Principal's Graduation Speech

Graduation Speech 2012

I am so honored to be standing HERE before you all today and by HERE, I mean literally, right HERE!  It is an Open School tradition to hold our graduation ceremony HERE at the top of Genesee Mountain. Unfortunately, weather has not permitted us to celebrate this occasion HERE for the past three years; it is good to be back! If you didn’t know better, you might think, what a lovely place to have graduation, you might not understand that we are HERE, in this place, for a much deeper and more important reason.
As with many of our practices at the Open School, there is a deeper meaning behind how and why we do the things we do. For example, it is a fact that everyone at Open School, students, and staff alike, refer to one another on a first name basis. Again, you might think that’s quaint. However, there is a deeper meaning. We are on a first name basis because we believe that we are all teachers and that we are all learners. Indeed, many Advisors referred to you (the students) as their teachers during final support meetings. We believe that learning is a reciprocal process based mutual respect and relationships. For us learning is NOT hierarchical. We do NOT believe that teachers are the sole authority or the expert, HERE to dispense knowledge to students who are the novice or the blank slate. We believe that we are learners together, as a community, HERE to support one another in the process of drawing out from within our personal best selves. Education, by its Latin root definition, is the process of drawing out from within.
Which brings me back to this place, for this ceremony. Behind me there are many prominent peaks, most notably Mount Evans at 14, 265 feet. We are HERE, as a community, at this place, to celebrate the latest, but certainly one of many accomplishments for this group of young people. For many HERE, your high school journey started three years ago, right THERE in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area. Every graduate of the Open School is united as a community through the common experience, we all know as the Wilderness Trip. In fact, the first thing I did after being hired as Principal of the Open School was to go to the Mount Evans Wilderness Area and do a Wilderness Trip with my teammate John McCluskey; we will miss you John.
The Wilderness Trip, not unlike referring to one another by first name, has a deeper and intentional meaning. It is a deliberate dis-orientation, designed to let students know that the education they will experience at the Open School will be profoundly different. You will develop relationships with your Advisors, teachers, and peers that extend well beyond the ordinary. You will depend on these relationships to help guide you through the process. You will understand and appreciate some of the most significant learning experiences in life do not happen in school; the Wilderness Trip introduces you to the most magnificent classroom, our world. You will learn, perhaps 2000 feet up and three miles in to this adventure, with a 30-pound pack digging into your shoulders, that this journey will not be easy. In fact, you might have even thought “I cannot do this, what was my Advisor thinking bringing me out here? I really don’t care for backpacking”. You might have even thought, perhaps, “this Open School thing was not such a good idea”. Four days later, you, like all the Open Schoolers before you, emerge at the trailhead. You flop your pack down and feeling about 30 pounds lighter; you bask in the glory of your accomplishment. Having completed the Wilderness Trip your thoughts have evolved. Now you think, “Wow!  Look at what I did. I CAN do this.”  Then you survey your weary, dirty, stinky comrades and you think, “look at what WE accomplished”. You might even think “hmm… maybe summer sausage on a tortilla with a little hot sauce is the best thing I’ve ever had to eat.” 
And so, it is no accident that we are HERE, at this place, gazing over the majestic splendor that is the Mount Evans Wilderness Area. Because that is where it all began. Now as a graduate of the Open School you can say to yourself once again, “Look what I accomplished.”  And you will know, as you look around at the end of this wild experience that is the Open School, that it was through the relationships formed, in this supportive community, that you truly were able to draw out from within you your personal best.  

To close, one last that the metaphor (like that Ryan, one more metaphor for you) I hope that you can connect to the emotions you experienced on your Wilderness Trip, specifically the feeling you had when you arrived at the end of the trail and perhaps now in this moment, in this place, you can know that more often than not, what appears to be the end of the trail, is really the beginning. Thanks for allowing me the honor of sharing this experience with you. And with much congratulation, I introduce to you, the class of 2012!   

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Make Your Voice Heard Survey

First blog post since Spring Break!

This week the Make Your Voice Heard survey data was released.  The Make Your Voice Heard survey is a survey that Jefferson County School District gives to students (2nd -12th grade) once every-other year to gather feedback about their school experience.  The survey focuses on three main areas; relationships, climate, and rigor/relevance.  Our students have consistantly expressed that the Open School is a place where they feel safe, cared for, and connected.  This year was no different and I wanted to share some of the highlights with you.

All percentages equal the percent of "agree" or "strongly agree" responses from students.


  • My teachers help me. 100%
  • My teachers respect me. 99%  
  • Staff members at this school care about students. 99%
  • There is a least one adult I can go to when I need help with school work. 97%

  • I feel safe at school. 96%
  • The students at my school tell an adult if they see bullying. 88%
  • I feel safe at school. 87%
  • I will graduate from High School 98%

  • My teachers encourage me to do my best. 98%
  • My teachers make it fun to be in class. 97%
  • My teachers encourage me to do my best. 97%
  • My teachers know a lot about the subject they teach. 98%

Monday, March 12, 2012

Deborah Meier Visits the Open School

On Friday March 9th, we at the Open School were lucky enough to host one of my personal heroes, Deborah Meier.  Deborah has been an advocate and activist for progressive education for decades.  She has been a teacher and worked as the teacher-director of the Central Park East in Harlem and Mission Hill School in Boston. Both these schools are models of progressive education and are similar in many ways to the Open School.  

Deborah visited several classrooms and then met informally with staff after school.  The discussion was engaging and inspiring.  The conversation focused on the challenges of preserving progressive education in the high stake world of educational accountability.  We discussed the need to remain vigilant in holding true to our progressive values as we respond the state mandates.  Deborah utilized the following metaphor to illustrate the point.

To paraphrase . . .

Imagine you are at the beach on a beautiful sunny day, lying on your towel in the sand.  You jump into the water to play and cool off.  You lose yourself in in the water and sometime later decide to find your way back to your towel.  As you emerge from the water, you notice that you have drifted and the your towel is some distance up the beach. 

The metaphor is important in that it reminds us that the tide is always moving us in one direction or another.  If we are not conscious of the tide we may unknowingly drift away from what we value.  For me the tide is inevitable, and as one staff member pointed out it seems to be moving more quickly these days.  However, Deborah's metaphor reminds us how important it is to remember what we stand for so we always know where our towel is. 

To this end, I am starting to think about the idea of an Open School summit.  The idea, still in the brainstorm stage, would involve students, parent, and staff spending a Saturday together for the purpose of creating a vision of what we want the Open School to be over the next 5, 10, and 40 years.  

Let me know what you think about the summit idea and you thought about what outcomes you would wan to see for such an event.         

Deborah is the author of several books and articles including; The Power of Their Ideas (see the Principal's Page for my top five favorite books on education In Schools We Trust.  You can find out more about her on her web site   

Friday, February 24, 2012

LA Art and Culture Trip


For me trips are an exceptional opportunity to challenge students personally, socially, and intellectually.  By focusing on the authentic learning, which occurs through these experiences, students gain a deep understanding of themselves and their role within the group.  Simultaneously, students rediscover the joy of learning by interacting with their environment and the interconnectedness of multi intellectual disciplines, which each trip incorporates.

In the transition from Advisor/Teacher to Principal my ability to participate in trips has been curtailed.  However, in April I will have the opportunity to travel with a group of students to Los Angeles for the LA Art and Culture Trip led by Jenny Long and Kara Olyowski. I am excited to join this group. 

I grew up in a small town and am more at home in the wilderness than a big city.  As a result, the LA trip will represents a personal risk and challenge for me. I do however, love art and experiencing diverse cultures therefore, I am excited about this urban adventure.      

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Alfie Kohn Lecture

On Friday night John McCluskey and I went to hear Alfie Kohn speak at the Watershed School.  Alfie Kohn is a passionate and persuasive speaker on on the topic of progressive education.  His talk was simultaneously encouraging and discouraging.  Encouraging, because we do so much of what he champions here at the Open School.  Discouraging, because I know progressive education is so important and yet so challenging to do well, especially in this educational climate.  Kohn has a great website with numerous articles with his thoughts on progressive education and how to keep it alive in today's world of high stakes testing and accountability.  Please check it out and let's start a dialogue about some of his ideas.