TGIF! Nov 17 2017


In six days, we’ll sit down for turkey, feasting, and thanks-giving.  I am truly grateful to you for your continued support.  2 ½ years ago, Imagine! was just a crazy idea I just couldn’t bat aside.  But today, when I look at the names of our future ninth graders, or when I drive by the place I hope we’ll call home next year, it’s already so much more.  And it’s each of you that has made that possible – if you didn’t want (need!) this school, it would have remained just an idea.  A good friend said the other day, “It’s no longer ‘build it and they will come’ – they’re coming, and you’ve got to build it.”  Mission accepted.

Enrollment interest

Speaking of that list of future ninth graders – if you have a son our daughter considering Imagine! for next year (as a 9th or 10th grader only), and you haven’t filled out our enrollment interest form, please go to to make sure we have you on our list.


Education Reimagined kicked off their annual conference for learner-centered education, SparkHouse, yesterday in Washington, DC.  Lots of Big Picture Learning students representing!  Checkout the tweetstorm that ensued on the question of “what makes an environment learner-centered?”  Adults have so many filters, so many models they (over)use to try and define these things.  The kids’ answers were pure.

What if I like structure?

Here was another great question mentioned during this event’s Facebook Live recap – “What if a kid sees school-centered education as the way they enjoy learning? What if they like the structure and the subject-by-subject nature of it?”  I hear this often, too, from parents – but the beauty of a learner-centered environment is the inherent choice: you have a choice to learn in the way that works for you.  If you like a lot of structure, you’ll learn to set up a structure for yourself. If you like more traditional learning methods, you’ll learn how to figure out where to access them. But learning to take ownership of your own learning is a skill that will be yours for the rest of your life.

Learning Links

Why wait to learn and do? (video clip):

On communicating better with your teenager –


In closing….

No TGIF next week.  Wishing you a joyous Thanksgiving Day with friends and family, and a restful long weekend.


TGIF! Nov 10 2017


If you park outside at night (like I do), I’m sure you ran your windshield wipers a time or two this morning to clear off that first little accumulation of snow we’ve had this fall.  You can thank a Birmingham, Alabama woman named Mary Anderson – not for the snow, but for patenting the first “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window”, on this day in 1903.  (Unfortunately, her patent expired before the idea caught on, and she never made any money from her invention.)

Different viewpoints, same conclusions.

As you’ve probably realized, I pull in articles and insights from everywhere.  Of course, every author writes from their own experience, but it’s uncanny sometimes how people with vastly different perspectives on education come to similar conclusions.  This article was a case in point – while it was written from a homeschooling parent’s perspective, I was quite literally able to post it to our Facebook page with just a single edit to better explain a key belief that we hold here at Imagine!, namely, that high school should be an opportunity to begin living life, and not merely preparing for it.

“There is simply life”

The story was about a 10 year old girl, and the question adults love to ask all kids (I think they just don’t know how else to make conversation) – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Her daughter’s answer was brilliant: “A baker, but I already am one.”  Is this just the naiveté of a child who has helped in the kitchen a few times, or is it an accurate answer? Kerry writes:

Baking brings my daughter daily joy and fulfillment while also helping to nourish her family and friends. She writes a baking blog, sharing her recipe adaptations and advice. She reads cookbooks, watches cooking shows (The Great British Baking Show is a favorite), talks to other bakers–both adults and kids–to get ideas and tips. She learned this all on her own, following her own interests, and quickly outgrowing the library children’s room cookbook section to the adult aisles.

She has unlimited access to the kitchen. She has abundant opportunities to visit the library and explore the Internet for real and digital information to help her in her craft. Her work is also incredibly valuable. I have never made a pie from scratch but she makes them all the time, bringing them as frequent desserts to gatherings and special events. The market price for her delicious, seasonal pies would be steep.

A [traditionally] schooled child, who might bake just as much after school or on weekends, likely wouldn’t answer in the same way.  Most children have accepted that “‘real life’ starts after. It starts after all the tedium, all of the memorizing and regurgitating, all of the command and control.”  While we can certainly have future goals and ambitions that we work towards – such as scaling up a talent for baking to become the means of earning one’s living – the young baker’s reply rejects the artificial separation between “preparing for life” and “living” that we have baked (!) into our educational mindset.

What if instead of focusing on after, we focus on now?  What if living, and learning, were synonymous?  What if instead of segregating kids from the real world during school, we actively encouraged opportunities that meaningfully include them in it?  What if “our job is not to prepare our children for who they will become, but to help them be who they already are”?

My daughter is a baker because she bakes. She is also many other things. To ask what a child wants to be when she grows up is to dismiss what she already is, what she already knows, what she already does. Will she always be a baker? It’s hard to say. Will I always be a writer? I think so, but who knows? Will any of us always be who we are now?


In closing….

Thanks for reading.  Do you know someone who might be interested in Imagine!, especially for 9th grade next year?  Please ask them to fill out our Enrollment Interest Form!


TGIF! Nov 3 2017


Happy November, and welcome new readers Brenda, Rachel, Amy, and Mikayla!

No additional updates this week on our facilities due diligence, but remember, these things take time. Here’s a few thoughts and shares from the past 7 days.

Free food and free feedback.

So, I got to be a bit of a mooch on Wednesday night.  It was a bit ironic to stumble upon Facebook event for a “Parent Focus Group” around education.  But, since I’m 1) a parent, 2) not averse to a free meal, and more importantly, 3) very interested to listen in on other local parents’ opinions about education on someone else’s dime, I happily signed up.  (I also wanted to learn who was behind this – an existing school, another new school startup, a community group, or something else completely?!?  Turns out it was an existing school, and we’ll say a private school in Muskegon County is specific enough for this tale.)

Other than humorous bits where our hosts were schooled on how Tri Cities parents think (yes, the bridge is a thing, Grand Haven peeps really won’t commute more than 15 minutes to anywhere), what struck me most about the conversation were all these unreconciled dichotomies that parents are struggling with.  For instance, a parent felt that having a large number of opportunities was really important, by allowing more kids a better chance to find their interests and passions.  But the same parent lamented a lack of downtime, heightened busy-ness and stress, and a lack of family time too.  Other things mentioned were a desire help students’ find their calling – but at the same time, not pressure them to “pick something” at a young age.

For me, the related thread between these two examples of trade-offs is scale.   On the one hand, too many opportunities are just too big.  Want to play sports?  Better train year-round and join a private league if you want to make varsity.  (Not true in every case, but certainly legit for the more competitive ones.)  Many extracurricular activities are oriented around the goal of being the most excellent at what they do.  Very few are oriented around giving kids exposure, a try, or time to dabble.  So, they tend to be big – more practice time, more involved, more commitment.  On the flip side, since we do value exposure and want kids to “try things”, there are another whole set of experiences that are too little, too shallow.  Take a career quiz.  Do a job shadow.  Now, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” In those cases, the activities are too small – and when you push a large number of kids through small-sized experiences they usually become meaningless, bureaucratic, or both.

If instead you can meet each student as an individual, and help them build a path that starts in the playful dabbling of “I wonder if I’m interested in this” but then supports them to seek more experiences as their interest grows, it keeps things at just the right scale for that individual – neither requiring that any one interest become their all-consuming “thing”, nor wasting their time with one-size-fits-all ‘drive-by’ experiences.  Then we can help every kid to find their talents and passions, while maintaining a balance of doing and simply being – taking downtime for self-reflection, balance, and yes, mental health.

Learning Links

From EdWeek (paywall), “Educators have the unique opportunity to shape the next 2017-11-03generation of adult listeners by modeling effective listening with their current students. Teachers and administrators often claim we encourage students to advocate for themselves. But, the question is: When students advocate for themselves are we actually listening?”  Here were their seven tips (hint – replace “student” with “your child” and you’ll see these work equally well for parents!):

Keep an open mind and assume positive intent.

Be present, (as hard as it may be) and don’t multi-task when talking to students. If a student approaches you at an inopportune time, offer another time to talk and follow-through on that meeting.

Ask unbiased questions (Can you tell me more? What makes you think that? Why did that happen?) rather than leading questions (Did you hear what I said? Did you forget again?)

Respond to student responses with additional questions rather than statements (What would happen if you did that? What does that look like to you?)

Try not to take student comments about expectations or assignments personally, (when will we ever need to know this?) and refuse to become defensive. Instead, ask questions to try to understand the impetus for why students make such comments. Look at the comments as suggestive feedback. Maybe something can be done.

Don’t be quick to offer a solution. Instead, collaborate with students to problem-solve.

Seek to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.


In closing….

Thanks for your interest, excitement, and support of what we are doing.  The student interest forms keep coming in, particularly those looking to join our 9th grade in the fall.  That’s great news, helping demonstrate the desire and need for this new high school option!



TGIF! Oct 27 2017


Let’s do a quick Q&A edition this week.  Here are answers to a couple of questions I’ve received over the last two weeks or so.

So where is the high school going to be?

So just to clarify, we haven’t signed anything and it will take another couple of months to determine if the site we are investigating is going to work out.  Here’s what I can tell you so far: The site is located in the tri-cities of Grand Haven / Spring Lake / Ferrysburg, and is fairly central to all three communities.  It’s bigger than we need in the first year (and potentially a little bigger than we even will need at full capacity) – but, there is the possibility of co-locating with another interested tenant and we are exploring how that could work out. It offers the possibility of leasing rather than purchasing and could be made ready for use as school at minimal investment. If all these stars align (minimal renovation to meet code, lease versus buy, and sharing the space) this would all help to keep our start-up costs much lower.  That reduces our fundraising burden AND it means more of the money we will need to raise can directly impact our future students – purchasing the furniture they will work in, the technology they will leverage, the books and materials they will use, etc… and less of it needed just to update mechanical aspects of the building itself.

[From a student]: I heard we’ll be able to try out different jobs at your school.  Could I try out being a photographer?

I actually get this question a lot (well, fill in any of a dozen different careers at the end!) And my answer is usually both liberating and scary for teens.  The liberating part is that they don’t have to worry that their interest won’t be “on the list” because we (the adults in the building) aren’t going to be picking out internships for the students.  The scary part is, they will be.  But as I told this young lady on Wednesday, we’ll help with all the preparation necessary to identify, approach, and secure an internship and they definitely CAN do it.

Learning Links

There were a few good articles lately all relating to how traditional grading practices get in the way of actual learning.  From author Stephen King, “That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade.”   And another piece on how tough it is for students to work for learning, as opposed to doing work for a grade.

In closing….

Do you have a question I didn’t answer today?  Just reply to this email and I’ll respond either personally or in the next TGIF (or both).


TGIF Oct 20 2017

Dear friends,

I began writing our usual Friday newsletter this morning only to learn a friend passed away last night after a 10 month battle with an extremely rare form of cancer.  While I never met Rebecca in person, she has been a part of my life for fourteen years, along with an amazing group of women whom I met on a silly online bulletin board for first-time pregnant moms. From that pure-chance beginning we’ve all shared and supported each other on a near daily basis, through good times and difficult times.  Needless to say, I’m struggling to say much about education or schools today.

Rebecca was devoted to her family, passionate in her faith (she and her husband lived in Poland as missionaries for a number of years), and always had a word or a gesture to comfort a friend.  She leaves behind her adoring husband Daniel and three beautiful sons: Benjamin, Aaron, and Samuel. (Her son Andrew – Aaron’s twin brother – died in infancy in 2006, so this sweet family has already experienced much loss.)

Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers today.


TGIF! Oct 13 2017


Happy Friday the 13th!  We continue to explore potential locations – did a walkthrough of one facility this week and proceeding with due diligence.  Nothing we can publicly announce yet and still much work to do, but please keep your fingers crossed!

Since I’ve been digging through the fire code much of today, we’ll keep this TGIF short and sweet with just a couple of learning links:

HS Stress and Anxiety

From the NY Times this week:

For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

Life Skills Matter

From a (British) research study published yesterday:

Essential life skills such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication are associated with better academic outcomes and better prospects in the workplace, and there is an increasing emphasis on their value, given labour market trends towards automation. While ‘character’ has traditionally been a focus of British private school education, provision in the state sector has been patchy, and it is only recently that a concerted move has been made towards prioritising life skills education for all children.

There is wide recognition of the importance of such life skills, with 88% of young people, 94% of employers and 97% of teachers saying that they are as or more important than academic qualifications. In fact, more than half of teachers (53%) believe that life skills are more important than academic qualifications to young people’s success and 72% believe their school should increase their focus on teaching life skills.

In closing….

Thanks for your continued support!  Please continue to share our mission with others!


TGIF! Oct 6 2017


It’s Friday, the early morning edition!  Heading to Grand Rapids to enjoy Art Prize with my oldest today, and grateful the rain looks like it will stay away.

In the meantime, let’s have a little fun.

Eventually, everything connects.

Quick quiz:  What do the following two images have in common?


The first is the Eames Lounge chair, and the second is a popular game for your smartphone.  The link between them is the quote above – “eventually, everything connects” – attributed to famed Hermann Miller designer Charles Eames and appropriated as a catchy tag line on the title screen of the Two Dots game.

The quote kept coming to my mind in the past few weeks as I would read various articles related to education innovations, because so often, everything DOES connect.  Not just in the obvious sense of connections across the curriculum or how science is linked to art is linked to history, but at the heart of how we “do” school.  Project-based learning doesn’t fit well in a 45 minutes class period.  There’s no time for teachers to be advisors when they also teach a traditional load of classes in a traditional bell schedule.  Each piece that you want to innovate on is connected to, affects, and is affected by some other piece.  You have to look at the connections.

I’ll give you an example.  This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education discusses the growing need for interpersonal skills in the workplace, and in the conclusion offers takeaways for high schools to implement, such as group projects and “long-term project-based work, in which students work as a team, receive feedback, and revise together”.  But the article starts out lamenting (as a humorous hook, I’m sure) the typical response of students when group work is assigned – the gripes, the groans, and in particular, the frustration with teammates: “He’s not doing his work!”  What’s the missing piece between the value of group work in theory and the reality in schools?  It’s the assessment.  If the group work is assessed conventionally and for a traditional “grade” then that grade IS the students’ objective.  Any inherent value in the work, any attempt at authenticity through, say, a final presentation, is lost to the game of ensuring the work maximizes the potential score.  So, we can’t talk about project-based learning without talking about authentic assessments.  “Eventually, everything connects.”  The same is true for all the other elements of a school’s design.

Here’s the full quote:


That’s one reason why Imagine! West Michigan is different.  We’re looking at the connections, and it’s those connections – how we organize time and space, how we conceive the role of teachers and staff, how standards are still met but in radically different ways, how students interact with one another, and how we set, achieve, and evaluate goals, and how all of these are related – it is these connections, even more so than the details of each element alone, that allow us to create a superior learning environment.

Learning Links

Here’s an article unpacking the difference between students who take ownership (“the work”), and those who are compliant (“the grade”).  Which quality is more important for the 21st century?

In closing….

We continue to press forward in exploring potential school buildings.  Keep your fingers crossed! We still want to hear about any locations you might know of, so keep your ideas coming. Together, we can make this a reality. If you are interested in making a financial gift, please visit for our mailing address and tax information.  Your help is truly appreciated.


TGIF! Sep 29 2017


Good morning and happy return to fall.  We continue to look at different building options for the high school and while our hope is to purchase a suitable existing facility (or really cheap land!) we also want to look for a contingency plan to get up and open with our initial class of 9th graders.  This would be a couple-of-classroom-sized space we could use for the first year (or two).  If you are a member of a community, civic, social, or religious organization that has some spaces that sit unused during the weekdays, we would be interested in learning more about potentially leasing that space.  The #1 clue that the space might meet school building code requirements is if it has a newer sprinkling system. So, look around as you go through your week this week – our school’s first home may be sitting under your nose!  We just need to hear about it!

See below for a few thoughts on why we need to see this school come to be, in the first place.

Purpose at the center

Our mission is to support each of our students to construct a life of meaning and purpose, and this mission is built into the heart of our school design.  This is an opportunity students in traditional high schools don’t often get, as Mind/Shift pointed this week in Helping Teens Find Purpose: A Tool For Educators To Support Students’ Discovery

“For you to have a sense of purpose you need two things: One, you need to know what’s important to you and what you care about,” Cook-Deegan said. “And two, you need to know how your work is going to have consequence in the world.” Many high school students go through four years of school doing exactly what they are told to do. The work often feels divorced from the real world — a prescriptive set of “shoulds” that adults say will lead to a happy life. But for many students, the end goal of all that work — college or a career — is a hazy future, not a tangible one.

The article goes on to point out two key structures that help bring purpose into focus for students – Advisories and Real World Experience. Learning in real-world internships allows students to test drive “possible futures” for themselves, and the support of their Advisor helps them to make sense of those experiences and grow in their understanding of their own talents and passions.

Cause and effect

I think the other reason for the “hazy future” problem is that our traditional schools, to the degree they address developing purpose, get the sequence backwards.  From another great piece, How to Help Teens Find Purpose:

“Young people do not usually develop a specific purpose and then go become an expert in that thing. Rather, they are exposed to something new that helps them develop their own sense of purpose. In short, in most cases experiences lead to developing purpose, not the other way around.”

Most people (4 out of 5 according to the Stanford Center on Adolescence) don’t have a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why.  And that’s OK.  But what’s not okay is telling 80% of young people to mimic those 20%: just pick something you think you can be passionate about, then go to college and study that thing, then get a job and make a career out of it.  (I’m not sure that works for the 20% all that well either.) We need to give kids a different roadmap:

“Most people do not have that one thing they are passionate about—that singular motivator that drives all of their life decisions and infuses every waking moment with a sense of purpose and meaning. (If you’ve found that studying the mating habits and evolution of mollusks from the Cambrian period until the present day is your purpose for living—we salute you. Charles Darwin spent thirty-nine years studying earthworms; we salute Charles Darwin.) …[But] most people are passionate about many different things, and the only way to know what they want to do is to prototype some potential lives, try them out, and see what really resonates with them. Once you know how to prototype your way forward, you are on the path to discovering the things you truly love.”

Our school model provides for that prototyping, and starts young people on their life’s journey so that graduation is just another step, not the end of the road.

 In closing….

Thanks for reading.  Please share our newsletter, and share our story with people you meet!


TGIF! Sep 22 2017


Happy first day of Autumn!  Wipe the sweat from your brow and raise a glass of iced lemonade to toast the changing of the seasons. And after watching the kids play soccer tomorrow morning – assuming games aren’t cancelled due to the heat index – you can head over to the state park and drop your beach blanket down in between the snow fences! Tip: if you’re looking for ice cream, I know the Dairy Creme at Chinook Pier is open through Sunday.

But no complaining.  This is fuel for the soul before La Nina punches us in the gut in a couple of months.  (Get your skis tuned now!)

Real Innovation

From EdWeek (paywall) this week:

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page aren’t shy about sharing the secret of how they came up with new products like Gmail and Google News: They allowed the company’s engineers to be creative. To be exact, they allowed their engineers to spend 20 percent of their work time on their own innovative passion projects… What if our K-12 schools believed in students the same way that Google believes in its engineers and universities trust their professors? What if we had that same faith in our students’ talents and capabilities?

Several years ago, as a middle school teacher at a Title I public school in New Haven, Conn., I told my 8th graders that for one period per day, they could spend time solving a problem they cared about instead of doing traditional schoolwork. Doing so changed my classroom: After years of teaching standards, I began teaching students.

We started by brainstorming students’ concerns about the world. They noticed that TV cameras rolled into the neighborhood when there was a murder, but not when good things happened. They were concerned about police brutality and a lack of trust between officers and teenagers. They worried about how the media portrayed young people, particularly young people of color like themselves, as uncaring rather than as the impassioned and curious people they are.

We then worked together to create standards-based projects that addressed those concerns. We developed the same skills students in other classes were learning, but we did so for real reasons. We built a website where they researched and reported their own stories for an online audience, responding to events in the news and paying attention to what the news overlooked. We designed a campaign to reduce stereotypes of officers and teenagers that students presented at the local police academy. We started a neighborhood museum at our school to celebrate the stories of our community.

… None of this was for a grade or because I, as their teacher, told them to. Instead, they did it because they could—and because they wanted to. Though I have since left the classroom, I still hear about the ways my students are making a difference at their high schools.

The traditional method of mass education starts with a curriculum and fits it to students’ needs. Too often, students’ interests exist separately from school, and they complete assignments for their teacher’s eyes only. Personal passion is too often missing from our classrooms.

As teachers, we should approach education the other way around: by starting with our students and then shaping a curriculum around them. When we give our students real responsibility to tackle problems connected to their interests, they flourish.

Learning Links

A few more pieces on innovation:

From Getting Smart, Why Factory-Model Change Won’t End the Era of Factory-Model Schools.  As Albert Einstein said, ““We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Shared on our Facebook page: Why more and more high schools are acting like start-ups: “Mission statements about innovation are a lot more common than the real thing. The most successful schools do more than get tablet computers in the classroom — they rethink instruction altogether. At Leyden High Schools in Franklin Park, Illinois, ninety percent of all tech-support tasks are now handled by high schoolers. Students are encouraged to develop business plans for startups and use school facilities to videoconference with mentors in the business world.”

In closing….

Find yourself some pumpkin spice sunscreen and go enjoy this crazy weather!


TGIF! Sep 15 2017


We’ve had a few long newsletters in recent weeks, so how about a short and sweet one?

Update update

(The title above was a typo as I searched for the right adjective.  Then I decided I kind of liked it as is – so here’s our ‘update update’.)

Summer is always a slow season in the education arena, and this one was no exception.  However, with the new school year fired up we are making some good progress as we approach the end of the quarter!  The two big things on our radar are facility and fundraising.  On the former we are working to nail down our location – vetting the feasibility of our frontrunner in terms of availability, zoning, cost, timing, and terms. On the fundraising front, we will be meeting with the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation next week and we very much look forward to their assistance and advice as we kick off that very important aspect of our school-founding journey!

Heard in the community…

I attended a meeting earlier this week which was held to solicit a wide variety of feedback to inform a local nonprofit’s upcoming strategic planning process.  In attendance were representatives from other non-profits with a variety of missions, local governments, local schools, etc. It was a big, diverse group.  It was amazing how, despite all the potential social issues facing our community, one of the top themes that emerged from the conversations was youth social and emotional health.  I look forward to reading a complete summary of the feedback they gathered; I think it will be helpful to our organization as well!

Learning Links

Speaking of mental health, a reminder that we all need time to daydream:

In closing….

What topics should we cover in the coming weeks?  Feel free to drop me a line with your questions and suggestions, to make this newsletter the most relevant to you!