Friday, December 16, 2011

Guiding Principles

Seven Principles that Inform Our Work

Young people want to learn.

Human beings are learning creatures. We don’t have to persuade babies to be curious and to seek competence and understanding. The same can be true of teenagers. Rather than trying to motivate teenagers, we support their basic human drive to learn and grow. Where obstacles – internal or external – have gotten in the way of this intrinsic drive, we focus on helping teenagers overcome or remove these obstacles.

Learning happens everywhere.

Conventional wisdom says that children “go to school to learn,” as though learning can only occur in places specially designed for that purpose. We believe that people learn all the time and in all kinds of places. It doesn’t have to look like school or feel like school to be valuable, and it’s not necessary to make distinctions between “schoolwork” and “your own hobbies” or “for credit” and “not for credit.” As one teenager who had recently left school observed, “Everything I do counts now.”

3  It really is OK to leave school.

Many young people who are miserable in school – academically or socially – stay because they believe that leaving school will rule out (or at least diminish) the possibility of a successful future. We believe that young people can achieve a meaningful and successful adulthood without going to school. It happens, over and over again.

4  How people behave under one set of circumstances and assumptions does not predict how they will behave under a very different set of circumstances and assumptions.

School success or failure is not necessarily a predictor of a child’s potential for success or failure outside of school. An unmotivated student may become enthusiastic and committed after she’s left school. A student who doesn’t thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. When we change the approach, the structure, and the assumptions, all kinds of other changes often follow.

5  Structure communicates as powerfully as words – and often more powerfully.

It’s not enough to tell kids that we want them to be self-motivated, or that we want them to value learning for its own sake, if the structure of their lives and their educations is actually communicating the opposite message. Voluntary (rather than compulsory) classes, the ability to choose what one studies rather than following a required curriculum, and the absence of tests and grades all contribute to a structure that supports and facilitates intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning.

6  As adults working with young people, we should mostly strive to “make possible” rather than “make sure.”

Most of the time, we can’t truly make sure that young people learn any particular thing – learning just doesn’t work that way. A group of adults can decide that all fifth graders should learn fractions, but when it comes to each individual child’s genuine understanding and retention, we can’t actually make it happen or guarantee that it will happen. As adults, what we can do, however, is try to make things possible for young people – provide access, offer opportunity, figure out what kind of support will be most helpful, do whatever we can to help navigate the challenges and problems that arise.

The best preparation for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present.

Too often, education is thought of in terms of preparation: “Do this now, even if it doesn’t feel connected to your most pressing interests and concerns, because later on you’ll find it useful.” We believe that helping teenagers to figure out what seems interesting and worth doing right now, in their current lives, is also the best way to help them develop self-knowledge and experience at figuring out what kind of life they want and what they need to do or learn in order to create that life. In other words, it’s the best preparation for their futures.

*** The above 'Guiding Principles' come from North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens, based in Hadley, MA. We chose to share them with you, our community, in hopes that they may resonate and provide inspiration as we move forward in creating an entirely new way of learning for New Orleans youth. ***

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Youth Led Social (R)evolution

Remember when that loud, unruly kid was a punk? Remember when that quiet girl doing art in the back of the room was weird? Remember when the kids who were leaders were predictable and understandable? What a cool world that we live in that none of that is true anymore!

Over the last 100 years our society has been busy birthing new realities, thrusting itself forward into an unfamiliar, unknowable future. Women's suffrage and civil rights were the cusp of these changes, as our family structures, social relationships, and cultural growth has reflected an even broader transformation. Young people, who at first were merely keeping pace with those changes, went from being the canaries in the coalmine to being the leaders at the front, taking charge, making movements, and driving social change as never before. Today, young people are the bellweather of the brave new future we continue to move towards.

Look around you! See those kids fixing their own problems on the playground? That's (r)evolution! See the teens in the alleyway finishing that tremendous graffiti mural? That's (r)evolution! See those tents and that meeting in the park where the Occupy movement is keeping hold? That's (r)evolution! Who is at the head of all this? Young people.

I challenge you to see today's reality: The (R)Evolution Is Underway. Can you see it? Can you feel it? The economy, politics, education... Young people are stepping in front of these speeding trains that are bulleting their ways through our society, and they're doing what appears to be "crazy stuff". But that crazy stuff, unfamiliar and scary as it may seem, is bringing us towards a positive, powerful future for all people everywhere all the time.

New Orleans Liberation Academy is steadily moving towards demonstrating this (r)evolution. Step with us into the future to see where we're all going - together!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Transformational Change

Our friends at the Q.E.D. Foundation have created a graphic that does a great job describing the type of transformational learning community we are working to develop. We hope it can also serve as a tool for anyone else working to make transformational change in learning and teaching. Q.E.D. Foundation is an organization of adults and youth working together to create and sustain student-centered learning communities. Their work is based on relationships and practices that first and foremost support students’ growth and learning while simultaneously improving the health of our communities and our society.

Download PDF Version.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Graduation by Validation

The New Orleans Liberation Academy (NOLA) educational program for high school graduation is organized around a competency-based, outcome oriented curriculum.  In a competency-based system, desired learning outcomes are clearly defined and stated up front. Students are assessed by whether they can demonstrate those outcomes.  In the NOLA curriculum, the different learning outcomes are called "competencies." Students progress through the NOLA curriculum by demonstrating that they have met the learning outcomes through a process we call “validation” in a variety of skill and knowledge areas. We call this demonstrating a competency.
What is a competency?
A competency is simply a statement of learning outcomes for a skill or a body of knowledge. When students demonstrate a competency by completing a validation they are demonstrating their ability to do something. They are showing the outcome of the learning process. Lots of the things that people do in their lives can be defined as different competencies - job skills, living skills, etc. In the NOLA curriculum we've taken the different kinds of skills and knowledge that are important for our students success, whatever path they may choose after high school. and we have defined them as different competencies or validation areas.

In most educational programs, a student moves through the requirements by taking a class and being assessed and earning a grade at the end of that class on how well she has done meeting the requirements of the class. The assessment says how well a student has done in a class, but it doesn't necessarily assess what a student has learned. Wherever the student is at the end of the class - that's what the assessment shows. When the semester ends, the student is done with that learning and moves on to the next class.
NOLA’s educational program is different (and we think more like the real world). Students at NOLA know up front what the expected learning outcomes are and each student is expected to fully demonstrate them all.  It's not enough to be part way competent in something, our goal is to help every student reach the level of demonstrating their competence/mastery.  If it takes less than a semester to acquire a particular validation, the student can demonstrate the competency and move on.  If it takes more than a semester, that's okay, too.  All students are expected to demonstrate the required outcomes, but different students will do it in different ways and at different paces.

How do students graduate from NOLA?
NOLA students graduate by doing projects, performing internships, completing suplumentary learning packets and/or taking classes towards twelve different learning areas.  Not everyone’s learning experiences will look the same; each student, their advisor and their validators will create a plan that will best suit their needs and interests.  As the student works on the twelve validations, they will also receive traditional credits for the time they put in.  Student’s transcripts at graduation will consist of at least 30 semester credits, and twelve summaries of learning, called validations

NOLA’s competency-based graduation process allows learners to earn a diploma through demonstrations of competence in addition to or in combination with traditionally determined credits.  In addition to meeting the state’s minimum graduation requirements, the student must meet the desired outcomes in twelve validation areas, and must demonstrate competence through projects and summaries of real-world learning experiences.  Each of these validations must be signed by an expert in that particular area called a validator.  The validator should be involved in the creation and execution of the learning plan, as well as its final assessment.  Upon successful completion of all twelve validation areas, the learner will amass a portfolio consisting of the twelve validations, or summaries of learning, as well as projects that showcase the student’s work.  The student will then present the portfolio to a graduation committee comprised of the student’s advisor, one or more family or community members, a program director, other staff, and a current New Orleans Liberation Academy student who is also on the competency-based plan.

Some of the validation areas will be met through traditional classes; however, students are encouraged to create their own learning and assessment plans in most of the areas.  The following is a list of the twelve validation areas in which NOLA students must demonstrate competency in order to graduate:

à        Effective Communication
à        Literary Analysis
à        Effective and Informed Citizenship
à        Valuing Diversity and History
à        Mathematics
à        Science and Technology
à        Physical and Mental Well-Being
à        Artistic Expression and Appreciation
à        Accessing Information
à        Community Involvement & Leadership
à        Employment Skills, Entrepreneurship & Career Exploration
à        Philosophical, Emotional and/or Spiritual Awareness

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Humanizing Education

Yesterday, we met with a group of students at Sci Academy, a Charter school in New Orleans East. The students we met with are part of a ReThink club, a group of students who come together weekly to work on creating solutions to challenges students feel in the school.

One topic emerged as central to the students' experiences at school: dehumanization. Students have fealt that in their school they are unable to be their full selves, express who they are or the struggles they face.

Paulo Friere wrote that central to authentic liberation is the process of humanization.

What then is a human education?

Currently few schools exist that are actually designed for human learning.  Traditional school was designed to turn human children into adult factory workers.  It succeeded, but what if we no-longer desire such a system? What if our desired outcomes for children and youth have changed since the industrial revolution? 

Our desired outcomes for our children have changed. What are those desired outcomes today, and can the kinds of outcomes you would choose for your child’s life be effectively measured by a multiple choice test?

When parents are asked what outcomes they would like for their children, they often say “I want them to be happy. “ And they also report a desire for a better world for our kids to live in. They applaud ideas like bringing compassion, understanding, caring, creativity, and love.

As we were visioning a school here in New Orleans, we asked ourselves, students, parents, colleagues, friends, neighbors, and anyone else who would give us the time: “What is the purpose of education?”  After a few months of asking this question to as many as possible, we’ve heard hundreds (maybe thousands) of answers, and have noted that very few of the answers we’ve heard actually have anything to do with traditional “academic learning.” Far more often, the answers focused on who our children and youth are and how we can support them in expanding that. In other words, it starts with the human.

So what is the disconnect that allows parents and educators to then turn around and send children into schools where their success and often self-worth is measured purely through a set of multiple choice tests in math, science, and reading, and some letter or number grades which tell us nothing of value?

Why do we not act on what we know intuitively… that who our children are is much more important than what they know?  It is who they are in terms of character that will shape our world.  All the knowledge in the world has never yet assured that our knowledge will be applied with wisdom.

Fortunately there are schools that get this and parents who are willing to allow their children to go to them, or who even get involved in creating them.  Through our continued relationship with the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) and the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), we have been able to connect with and learn from some of them.

Many of these schools are democratic schools run by partnership between adults and children. These schools provide education for humans, not for industry.  They know that future industry must change to fit future humans, and not the other way around.  A human education system serves the human children within it first and foremost.  The interests, skills, talents, and physical, mental, emotional and spiritual requirements of children are top of the list when designing schools. 

So as we begin with the human, the first task at hand when our students join us is keen observation of how the youth acts, the things they are drawn to, the foods they choose, the friends they empathize with, the information they choose to learn, the clothes they wear, the way they speak, listen, and interact with others. All of this is quite valuable in facilitating the expansion and learning of each student. 

Once their strengths and interests begin to emerge, we can then begin to support their journey.  This is how New Orleans Liberation Academy functions: in service to the human.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick-or-Treating in the Lower 9th Ward

Last Friday at the Lower 9th Ward Street Library, we hosted a special event for the neighborhood children and youth as way to bring the community together in celebration. We had face painting, told scary stories and went trick-or-treating! We were joined by about 30 of our young friends, another 10 neighborhood teenagers and nearly 20 parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors. Thanks to everyone that came out to the Guerrilla Garden for our Halloween celebration! Special thanks to Books for Kids for the free give-aways and to the Brassaholics for leading the parade! Here are some pictures of the fun!


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Get Involved to Help Grow Our School

Do you want to have a significant impact in the lives of New Orleans youth and thier communities?

Do you want to gain experience incubating a grassroots, democratic, community-based school?

Are you interested in contributing to and learning from a powerful learning community of educators, organizers and youth?

Get involved with the next phase of the development of New Orleans Liberation Academy.

We are looking for teachers, artistds, youth development workers, counselors, organizers, youth, community members and others who have experience working with youth and/or are committed to creating an education that is relevant, meaingful and inspiring. We need dedicated, creative and hardworking people interested in working collaboratively to plan and develop a new small school in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Our mission is to engage, educate and inspire empowered New Orleans youth to transform their lives while positively contributing to the betterment of their community.  Our vision is to support our students in becoming independent thinkers, problem solvers and self-directed learners. Our school community will model the values of dedication, care, creativity and interdepenence that will help shape our students into successful learners and community leaders.

If you are interested in learning more about us and/or think you might be interested in joining a team of committed educators, organizers and youth in furthering the development of something new, unique and empowering for New Orleans youth, please contact us at and tell us a little about yourself and why you are interested in getting involved.