Last year we adopted a Manifesto which describes our purpose and will soon guide our strategic plan. As an educator who strives to transform education, I find it to be inspirational. The Mount Vernon Presbyterian School Manifesto states:

Education is changing.

We live amidst a fundamental reordering of how we think about school: from the centuries-old belief that content knowledge is its central currency, to the nascent understanding that what you know matters less than who you are, and what you are uniquely capable of impacting.

Across the country, communities and schools are beginning to test this shift in myriad ways. But overall, educators, parents and community leaders are still in search of a well-lighted path that can illuminate what the future of education will actually need to look like — and require.

A way forward has already been envisioned: the Mount Vernon Continuum. More than perhaps any other school, Mount Vernon understands what the chemistry of a great school requires:

  • A clear and compelling organizational mission.
  • Cultural norms that invite people to step outside of their comfort zone.
  • People-centered design principles that guide teaching and learning.
  • And six timeless, significant habits of mind.


To continue to set the conditions for learners to excel in college, career, and citizenship, there is still much work to be done. As a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact, we see three key essential questions guiding our future work:

How might we make school more reflective of real life?

We choose to engage and explore all scales of community. We welcome the chance to live at the edges where disciplines mingle in search of maximum impact. We want our school to be a destination for anyone who wishes to design a better world. We want our school to create intermingling rivers of connection between people, ideas, and sectors. We want our school to embody a new notion of what “school” is and does.

How might we empower all learners to be seekers and explorers?

We choose to wander and to wonder. We seek to create a learning environment that invites all people to follow the sparks of motivation, interest and curiosity as far as they can take them. We seek to provide paths of faith and curiosity. We seek to nurture experiences of deep purpose and joyful play. We seek to model living, learning mindsets that constantly adapt and expand.

How might we inspire one another — and the larger world — through the work we undertake together?

We choose to make our thinking visible and actionable. We envision learning in which children are seen and heard. We envision transparency in the learning journey — process, product, and progress. We welcome the chance to wrestle with voices and perspectives that challenge our assumptions. We envision learning in which our trust for each other strengthens our sense of individual freedom, autonomy, and interdependence.

We choose to graduate learners and leaders who are “impact-ready.”

We choose to experiment with extraordinary ideas that might one day become the norm. We will not just build a roadmap for future generations of MVPS students and families; Mount Vernon will continue to carve a path for the future of learning itself.

#ATL’s Urban City Studio: An concept for engaging with your community

The City of Atlanta has big plans for the future especially since they are projecting 2.5 million new residents over the next 25 years. The city has created a comprehensive development plan and one of the ways that they are increasing awareness and gathering information from Atlanta residents is through their new Atlanta City Studio. The lab has a variety of displays, many of which are interactive. This pop-up lab will be at Ponce City Market for 6 months and then move to another area of the city. During my visit I was greeted by a staff member who took me on a tour and explained all that the projects on display and the process they are using to engage with the Atlanta community.

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The goals for the urban design studio space are to:

  •  through a shared vision for vibrant urbanism, raise awareness about urban design and plan for a better Atlanta…one that will continue to advance Atlanta’s people and places;
  •  create urban design policies and enhance design sustainability and livability for the city;
  •  direct urban design services on projects throughout the city;
  • spark urban interaction amongst people who visit our city and those who live here;
  • engage residents and stakeholders in identifying goals for the City of Atlanta and create a new narrative;
  • enhance the socioeconomic, ecological and sustainable urban design form for the city.

My visit there this weekend got me thinking about how we could use a space like this at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. My first thought was that we can use it to gather information from our community that will guide us in our strategic planning process and to share information on our academic program. The space can also be used with prospective families who are thinking of attending your school. Visitors can maneuver on their own or be shepherded through by faculty members, students, parent volunteers or administrators. Take a look at what #ATL City Studio has and how your school can benefit from a pop-up lab.

Bike Network

Bike Network Plans



Character Areas Maps

Explaining Ideas and Asking Questions

Character Areas Questions


Imagine a student showing these panels to parents and having a conversation on the topic. Any community member who serves in a host role will have to truly understand these ideas and what they mean for the school.

Good Urbanism 1

Good Urbanism 2


Clipboards 2

Visitors can provide feedback by answering strategic questions

Let's Play

This interactive model allows visitors to redesign city blocks.

Kids Area

Younger children can also participate

Meeting Space

A meeting space for small groups

Work Plan

And a work plan with markers on glass. (These are really trendy now)

Who has influenced you lately?

For some reason I have had the good fortune of being influenced by some brilliant, talented and dedicated individuals these past few months. While I’ve only scratched the surface of their work, I find their work to be inspirational.  Our students, at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School have been fortunate to hear Jeff Shinabarger, Kitti Murray, and Terence Lester tell their stories. Jeff is the founder of Plywood People, which is here in Atlanta, and Kitti and Terence have worked closely with Jeff to build their organizations. My wife and I were fortunate to meet met Len and Georgia Morris this summer while we were visiting Martha’s Vineyard. All are passionate and impactful “engaged citizen leaders”.

Jeff Shinabarger



Jeff Shinabarger spoke at the Class of 2016 Graduation Ceremony and each member of the graduating class received a copy of his book, More or Less, Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity. I love their slogan, “Better is Possible”. After reading Jeff’s book I am conducting an experiment to determine “what is enough in your [my] life.” My three takeaways from the book were:

  • We can lead richer and fulfilling lives if we determine what is essential for our living.
  • “The good life is not found in luxury; rather it is found in a life that enhances the life of another human.””
  • I must continue to develop an understanding of individuals who are different than me. I must walk in their shoes. This understanding can totally change my mindset.

Kitti Murray

Kitti Murray is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Refuge Coffee. She spoke to our students earlier in the year and Kitti and her team participated on this year’s fuse16 conference. After working with Kitti’s team to develop solutions to how they can better integrate members of the Clarkston and greater Atlanta communities I am obsessed with learning more about the Clarkston community. The weekend after fuse I traveled out there to explore the neighborhood. Within two square blocks there are probably 12 different markets. I can only imagine that each market caters to different ethnic groups. I felt like I was overseas again, except I wasn’t sure which country I was visiting. I’m also reading Dave Eggers book What is the What. I’m also having conversations with colleagues on how our students can learn from Clarkston residents.

Terence Lester

Terence is the founder of Love Beyond Walls. Terence shared his story with our students and his team also participated in fuse16. I’ve been fascinated by how Terence walks in the shoes of others to better understand their world. He lived on top of a bus for 30 days to raise money to buy a bus that has been transformed into a mobile makeover salon, lived for a week on the streets, and he is preparing to call attention to poverty in this country through MAP16. Terence, and volunteers will be walking 648 miles from Atlanta to Washington D.C. I hope to participate in MAP16 and a group of MVPS students is preparing to promote and recruit participants for the event.

Len and Georgia

Len and Georgia Morris haven’t spoken to MVPS students…yet. The two are the founders of Media Voices for Children. Meeting Len and Georgia was an added bonus to our trip to Martha’s Vineyard. For over 20 years the two have been on a mission to protect human rights for children. They have documented poverty and human rights abuses in countries around the world (including the U.S.). Len was the 2012 recipient of the Iqbal Masih Award from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“This award recognizes the life’s work of Len Morris in raising public awareness about the plight of working children around the globe,” Ms. Polaski said. “His films and advocacy highlight child labor, hunger in Africa and homeless child laborers.”

Below are the trailers for each of their three films.

I look forward to learning more from Len and Georgia and finding ways to connect them with our students.

Amazing Summer of Learning

This summer I have had three amazing learning experiences that were each very different, yet they connect to our mission at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. Here is my first pass at a brief overview of the takeaways.

Traverse Conference at the Watershed School in Boulder, CO

MVPS Team at Traverse16

The MVPS Team (minus Bo Adams) at Traverse 16

Storify from Traverse

Using the local environment for learning – Right from the start we were working with John Weiss from Human Design to consult on their Social Action Machine Project. Starting out on a non-educational project was the perfect way to get the creative juices flowing. This was also a reminder that we need to search for projects for our students that are outside the realm of our walls.

Baking human into everything you do. John Weiss

Project-based learningNicole Martin and I joined the Integrating Disciplines Through Real-World Learning session. We were immediately put on a bus and traveled to visit the site of a 6th grade project that involved ecology, economics, government, sociology and many other disciplines. After the group listed their community problems Nicole and I latched on to transportation and traffic in our area. More to come later on our ideas for a schoolwide project on this problem.

Disciplines legitimize each other.

Entrepreneurship – We learned about Startup Weekend, a program for teenagers that is held in cities around the country. Our task was to study the organic food market and pitch a start up. The highlight was our visit to a Whole Foods. We observed and interviewed shoppers in the store. We got a taste of immersing ourselves in the research and empathy process.

Consultivations – Our students are so much more capable than what we typically give them credit for and Meghan Cureton presented how our Innovation Diploma students consulted with an organization on the design of a pocket park. Here’s an article from a local newspaper explaining what the students accomplished.

fuse 16 at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Refuge Coffee fuse16

fuse16 work with Refuge Coffee

The goals for participants were:

  • Make an impact in an issue alongside several Atlanta nonprofits
  • Learn design thinking as a practitioner, rather than in a “classroom” setting
  • Model the possibilities and opportunities for doing school differently


The best part of the entire experience was learning the DEEPDT process while working with Refuge Coffee. Refuge is an amazing social business that strives to create community for Clarkston residents. In doing so the company also allows for newly immigrated refugees to earn a living wage and develop skills, including English language. Clarkston has the reputation for being the most diverse square mile in the world. The learning was fantastic and the relationships that we built with the Refuge team were moving.

Pioneer Lab with Education Reimagined in Washington D.C.

PioneerLab Text

Pioneer Lab in Washington D.C.

Imagine a network of educators and organizations that is focused on transforming education by creating a new paradigm. This is what Education Reimagined is trying to do by organizing educators from around the country to participate in their Pioneer Labs. I was invited to attend the second session of training to prepare for a September gathering. The learning was two fold:

Education Reimagined has created a vision, a new paradigm, for the for the future of education that is Learner Centered and the five elements are listed below.

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The second piece of learning was around the change process. It’s fascinating to understand how extremely difficult it is for people to move from one paradigm to another. The most telling example was how medical professionals believed, for 2000 years, that bloodletting was the only way to cure diseases. It took new scientific knowledge and extensive research for medical professionals to shift this paradigm.

Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental
process that you are hardly aware of its
existence, until you try to communicate with
someone with a different paradigm.
What does this new paradigm mean?
The learner-centered paradigm changes our very view of learners themselves.
Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential. This paradigm recognizes that learning is a lifelong
pursuit and that our natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn
should be fostered throughout our lives, particularly in our earliest years. Thus,
in this paradigm, learners are active participants in their learning as they gradu-
ally become owners of it, and learning itself is seen as an engaging and exciting
process. Each child’s interests, passions, dreams, skills, and needs shape his or
her learning experience and drive the commitments and actions of the adults and
communities supporting him or her. (“A Transformational Vision for Education in
the US.” Education Reimagined, 2015. Page 5.)
Learner-centered education isn’t the newest way to “do” education. Nor is it a new
“to do” list or set of activities to add onto your work. Because it is a paradigm shift, it
actually offers a new worldview and demands a mindset shift. It becomes a new way
to…well, be. And, that changes everything.
I look forward to participating in this important work.
WOW! These were all inspiring experiences and they have helped me grow as an educator.

Searching for Flexible Learning Spaces to Study

In my last post New Learning Spaces = New Flow of Learning, I shared the plans for a new Upper School building at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.  I have been fascinated by what this new campus will mean for learning at our school and am fixated on finding comparable spaces. Earlier in the year, I had the opportunities to visit the James B. Hunt, Jr. Library and North Carolina State University and the G. Wayne Clough Learning Commons at Georgia Tech. Both places provide learners with flexible and open spaces.

While these amazing facilities help me to study how learners use the space, I keep asking myself, “Is the type of use in these libraries different than how are teachers and students will use our new building?” (What I’m about to write actually makes me chuckle.) In general, it appears that students determine how the space will be used. They can work individually or in groups. They can play video games when they want. They can get assistance from librarians or writing tutors on demand or they can use the technology when needed. These spaces don’t seem to be teacher driven or collaboratively driven by teachers and students.

So, if we took over Georgia Tech’s Learning Commons for a week, how would we organize the space? Where would the teachers and students go and how would the space be used? What would the flow of learning by like? These are the questions that I am wrestling with now.

We are planning to convert current classroom space to make it more flexible next year and we are searching for schools who are already experiencing teaching and learning in these flexible spaces. If you’re one of these schools, let’s talk.

People Get Emotional When you Talk about Changing Grading Practices

Over the years I have followed newspaper articles from communities where grading and reporting changes have taken place and quite often the conversations lead to heated arguments, animosity, teachers getting suspended and/or fired, principals getting losing their jobs and court cases.

Possibly the most controversial change that really gets tempers flaring is when schools decide to not assign zeros to missing student work. While the two sides don’t usually get physical, the battle can be nasty.

"Untitled" by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

“Untitled” by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain











Under these circumstances it’s very difficult to change overall practices. Instead of the focus being on changing assessment practices to improve learning, individuals take a myopic approach and the two sides get bogged down in the single issue. The fear of having to face upset parents, students and teachers typically leads to continuing the status quo. The status quo, even though flawed, is just easier to continue.

Fortunately, the Graded community was appreciative to discuss assessment practices that improves learning. Our teachers, parents and students saw the value of being able to give feedback to students on academic performance and separate feedback on learning habits. There wasn’t a battle around the typical divisive issues (i.e. zeros, extra credit, participation, group grades, homework grades). The only issue that created a stir throughout the year was reassessments (more on this in another post).

These are the responses from the high school faculty at our opening faculty meeting for the 2014 – 15 school year.

From the start of the year we were continuously learning in these four areas (and others).

What did I learn?

  • That it is never too soon to prepare for rolling out these changes. Ask teachers to respond to these prompts as early as possible.
  • Having a community that supports the concepts and initiative makes the rollout easier.
  • Even when you have the support of the community, there will be disagreements and critics.

What’s it like to change grading and reporting practices that have been around for over 100 years?

1923 Gradebook Page 1

At Graded, In 2012 we started working on plans to redesign our assessment practices to better meet the needs of our students. The most difficult work happened during the 2014 – 15 school year and everyone in our community was on a steep learning journey.I am so proud of our faculty for taking the risks by stepping out of their comfort zones by trying something new. For me, it was probably the most challenging year of my career. I have been wanting to document this journey since last August and with so many educators embarking on these types of changes, now is the time to share. My story of our work is probably much like that of others who have decided to break the cycle of the use of grading practices that don’t promote learning and a growth mindset. Jeff Lippman shared the story of our middle school in this November post, Gathering Feedback For Growth: Grading and Reporting Changes.

Teachers have been assigning grades to students, based on averages, since at least 1870 (Guskey) and most of us have only experienced a system where final grades determined by averaging all marks. We attended school where teachers used this system and then, as educators, we adopted these practices when we started teaching. And, most of us have been in systems where the grades included scores that reflect learning habits. This means that the final grade is not truly indicative of the student’s knowledge and skills.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

So, after two years of prep work we decided on the following.


All grading and reporting, as part of the school’s overarching assessment philosophy, strives to be comprehensive, equitable, and transparent in the spirit of continuous improvement. The purpose of grading is to communicate achievement of academic standards and habits of learning to all stakeholders.

The impetus for change:

  • In the 2012-13 school year we adopted new Achievement Descriptors. It is impossible to fully implement those descriptors without separating academic achievement from learning habits.

  • The schoolwide focus on assessment over the last three years has led us to question the current Grading and Reporting paradigm.  In order to align our work with our philosophy, changes are necessary.

  • Feedback from teachers, parents and students in addition to Challenge Success data in both the MS and HS suggest that the focus of our students is often on the “grade” rather than on the “learning”.

  • Our current system of grading does not encourage a growth mindset amongst our students as it punishes risk taking and failure.

  • Our current system of grading does not clearly help students gather information about their strengths, weaknesses and areas of potential growth.

Academic achievement grades will not include:

  1. Grade penalties for late work.  Teachers do not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence.  Instead, there will be a non-academic consequence which will be reported in the learning habits assessment and supported by the procedure described below.

  2. Group scores: While teachers are encouraged to design tasks that involve collaboration, those projects should be assessed individually for each student.

  3. Grade penalties for academic dishonesty: This will be treated as a disciplinary matter. Teachers will not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence. Graded’s policy is designed to ensure that academic work is completed with integrity.  When students do not demonstrate academic integrity, the Policy on Academic Dishonesty will be applied.

  4. Extra credit or bonus points: There will be no “enrichment assignments” that are meant only as a means to “raise the grade”.

  5. Overall participation grades: Unless participation is a part of the academic standard that is being measured, students should not be given a “catch all” participation grade.  Examples of appropriate participation grades: Oral participation in a socratic seminar in relation to a reading (speaking and listening standards). Oral Participation in a science debate.

  6. Homework grades where the purpose is practice or reinforcement, should not be included in the academic achievement grade.  Teachers should keep a record of these formative assessments and provide feedback on progress in Veracross.

  7. Zeroes when evidence is missing or as consequence;  teachers will use IE for Insufficient Evidence and students will be subject to the late work policy as described below.

As a faculty, we struggled with really difficult decisions and the we were learning throughout the experience. While there were times when the work was difficult and challenging, I always believed that it was the best for our students. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing more of the story, including a post entitled “Revolt and Regroup” and information on how grades will be determined by teachers this coming year without using an average.