For many years, as a teacher, I pushed for innovation in education, confident I was making positive changes. What I did not realize at the time, was that I was pursuing this change inside of an existing system. This is much easier to do.
Then I helped establish the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII, pronounced “sigh”) in Victoria, BC, Canada. And was the first teacher hired. Working with a small team, we grew PSII from its infancy, building the plane as we were flying it.
The vision of PSII was developed by Jeff Hopkins, an education veteran, and a former superintendent. You can find the full philosophy of the school at learningstorm.org. PSII is the culmination of over 20 years of Jeff’s education research and leadership.
Moving from vision to practical application has been an entirely different story. This book is about my experiences implementing this vision, the perspectives I have gained, and the leap in my education practice. Revealing the successes, failures and learnings of that process, I lay out what I believe are the important steps needed to facilitate a transition into a new system. This book is based upon four years of “in the teaching trenches”, a glimpse into the practical experience of attempting to change the BC graduation program. It is not theoretical. What I have learned comes from hard earned practice.
This will be my last year teaching at the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry. It has been quite the ride. I have learned so much. I have consciously tried to improve 1% everyday. That compounds to 3800% per year. So, I am now 15, 200% better from when I began four years ago.
I believe in doing the hard things in school. Not handing out worksheets. No. Creating things from scratch. Getting kids to work in a team and truly collaborate. These are much harder things, and in my opinion, more valuable.
As much as possible, I have tried to be a producer to the high school kids I work with. It is such a challenge. Most students have had no practice working in teams to create something from nothing and consequently, suck at it. Sometimes a team of kids comes together that has a good leader and positive interpersonal chemistry. It is a pleasure to be a producer in this environment. This year, I had such a team to create a short film.
It was still difficult. There were still frustrations, doubt, and obstacles. But they pushed through. The leader wrote an original screen play, gathered a crew, and simultaneously directed and acted in it. He kept the team of five working together. As producer, I was there to enforce work, times, schedules, and deadlines. This is the hard work: Going through five months of effort to make something from nothing where everyone had to come together to make it happen in every stage of the production process.
Learn by doing. Makers are gonna make. Highly functional teams are rare and will always beat teams who are not working together even though they may be better funded or have greater market and technological advantages. It requires practice. This practice typically does not happen inside of high school. But this is exactly the kind of experience that every organization needs on Earth.
I absolutely love making new work. I find the process exhilarating.
I also had the good fortune to have worked with expert improviser and actor, Dave Morris. We got a $10,000 grant to teach theater skills and construct a show. Building shows makes me happy. At times, it can be frustrating and exasperating, but in the end, so rich and rewarding.
The show, titled: “Pandora”, was all original (minus a couple of cover songs). The kids wrote it from scratch. It was hilarious, pithy, and touching. There are some scenes that made me bust out laughing ever single time I saw them.
I will state it again: I believe that collaboration is the most important thing to learn in high school. Building an end product that must be shipped is such a valuable learning experience for teenagers. There is a good amount of pressure to perform. Some step down, while others step up. Most step up. I find it very fulfilling to see a student go beyond their comfort zone and push themselves to internally grow — especially when this contributes to an end result that is greater than any of them could have done by themselves. To see kids come together, help each other, learn, and develop art that moves minds and stirs emotions, well, how can that not be enjoyable?
Here is a little documentary on the making of “Pandora” that one of my talented student’s made:
I have also been fortunate to have a student who is a dedicated national paddling champion; his club is only a 15 minute walk from the school. Every Thursday morning, I got to take a group of kids paddling outrigger canoes on the Gorge in Victoria, BC. If you have never been to Victoria, I have to tell you, it is the most beautiful city on Earth. The air is delicious…we are living in a rain forest.
Intense learning experiences are my favorite; pushing into an area where all senses are heightened, learning by doing.
I was able to provide those opportunities. For example, paddling out into a Strait can be a little treacherous; there are a host of factors to deal with, like wind and waves. It is possible to flip and they have to know what to do — especially in a 6 person canoe that weighs 600 pounds — 900 pounds when it gets flipped over and filled with water.
So, we practiced a huli (flip the boat and get back in). It was an intense learning experience for the kids:
“We lean right, away from alma, and boom, in a flash, we are all in cold ocean water. In seconds, everyone’s adrenaline is racing. Michael, one of our coaches, immediately barks orders. Count off…1…2…3…4…5…6…One kid starts panicking. I honestly thought that we were going to have to swim him back to the docks. We finally calmed him down and after a few attempts, flipped the boat back over. One person in at a time, start bailing! 20 scoops = 1 more person in the boat. I am the last one in and my teeth are chattering.”
The body and brain go into survival mode. It is good to see. Again, I want to push students comfort zones to work as a team in an intense situation because it feels so great when done; there is a strong sense of accomplishment.
As an entrepreneur, I love working with talented engineers. Because my mind does not work in that way, I absolutely love what they can do. Here is a sign that a student engineer and I built (it is the school logo designed by another student):
I believe that students should be making things. Making a product is a valuable life experience. This sign is actually the culmination of two years of work. It started off as a massive light installation that we pitched to VIATEC. It then got turned into something for the airport. I had everyone lined up to help – an engineer who built his own LED product, Limbic Media, Ladies Learning Code, and VIATEC to construct it. For me, it is so much fun to do as a teacher/entrepreneur. Alas, it didn’t come together, so it then turned into a project to build this crazy light pyramid made out of angle iron. I can’t even remember how many LEDs a side there were. It required too much power. We did get it working – kind of. There were just too many soldering connections and things went wrong. It has now arrived as this sign. I am thrilled at the product we salvaged from the process.
The lessons that I have learned and the experience that I have gained operating in this unique education environment has led me to write a book (see the next post for my opening pages). I am aiming for it to be finished by April next year and I will expand on many of the lessons that I have learned these last four years. Coming soon…
Clown. The word has so many meanings and contexts. It is arguably the oldest profession on Earth.
In recent years, in North America, when people ask me what I do, and I say “clown”, the majority of them say, “I’m scared of clowns.” No wonder. Think of Stephen King’s “It”. Now I say, comedian, but really, I am a clown.
I love the essence of the clown. To be able to get up on stage, with nothing, not even words most of the time, and just make ’em laugh.
Physical comedy is universal. As is story telling. There is just something so universally, humanly funny to watch your friend fall on their ass. It is hard wired into our brains to laugh at it, especially when it is a punchline.
Some people are just naturally funny. Yes, I do think that some people are born clowns. They just have that disposition. However, I also truly believe that it can be learned.
I have been doing it for 14 years now. I am finding so much inspiration, especially as I mature and understand life, emotions, and people more deeply. One of the talent scouts from Cirque du Soleil told me that their clowns don’t peak until they are 55. Clowns are the funniest with a ton of life experience. So, I got lots of time.
Making a gigantic audience erupt in laughter is the best adrenaline rush that I have ever had. I don’t think that I will be able to stop doing it. I have already thought of ideas to extend my career virtually as long as I can stand and speak.
I feel that it is a constant road that I will never master. There is always learning to be done. That is why I love it so much. I am incredibly excited to continue to develop, grow, teach, and create new work.
21 Dec, 2016
by Jake Comments Off on Teaching Juggling…
Teaching juggling is one of my favorite things to do in the world. I literally cannot get any happier than juggling in the shade of a tree in summer time. I honestly don’t know how to explain it…it just makes me happy.
24 Nov, 2016
by Jake Comments Off on What education should really look like now: partnership with Limbic Media
Limbic Media is an amazing company with some of the most artistic engineers and entrepreneurs around. They provided valuable resources and mentor-ship to our young learners.
We have done some major projects over these last 3 years.
I remember the first time walking into Limbic Media’s HQ with a couple of students. It was exactly what you would picture a startup to be. Mad creativity happening.
Our first project with them was to develop a sensor-ed door bell. It worked! Kind of. It drove the engineers nuts and they took it down. But we did it!
Simultaneously, we were doing a project for VIATEC, our city’s tech incubator, creating a sensor-ed binocular system that showed pictures of our city for marketing purposes. That worked too! In fact, it was Limbic Media who referred us to the project.
During summer break that year, I met with Manjinder Benning and Justine Love, the founders of Limbic Media. I wanted the year to be epic and huge; I wanted to integrate engineering and agile methodologies into the school.
And did we ever that year. First, we got to work on Mason Street Farm’s aquaponics unit. This was a complex engineering problem. Electricity, water, and sensors are a tricky combination. Combine that with sending critical data to a website to notify the owner of the conditions in the tanks. Many moving parts to this project. They and I learned to work in scrum, and Limbic provided a huge amount of engineering mentor-ship.
Simultaneously, we began work on a major passion project to design sound interactive LED cubes for VIATEC. We created a prototype and then pitched it to Dan Gunn, the Director. He loved the idea and gave us $3,000 to develop it. The team sourced parts all over the world, designed the boards that got built in China, modeled the final product, 3d printed parts from their own design, learned a ton of code and manufacturing processes, and understood the paramount importance of how to work together as a team to develop a startup.
By the end of these projects, I was burned out form hardware. Luckily, we turned our attention to software, creating a platform to stream art with the working title of “Artify”. The team worked hard for a year and half collectively writing over 16,000 lines of code and designing countless mock ups. We got it to MVP (minimum viable product) and we were just about to test it when the motivation to continue fell through due to questioning if the platform had viability. The team felt it didn’t.
And that is where we have finished. Every single kid on these projects learned tons. They have all said so themselves. What is most important to me is that they learned how important and powerful a small team can be.
This is exactly what I want to see in education: community connections and partnerships with local companies to develop valuable products, learn how to truly collaborate and build a startup. It is the most valuable learning for future career prospects that a high school student can get in my humble opinion.
One of the students (Liam) who graduated a couple of years ago went on to electrical engineering. Currently in his 2nd year, he had to find a work placement as part of his degree program. It is highly competitive and all the jobs that he was looking at required a large depth of coding skills which he did not have.
He then found a placement for another local urban farm currently setting up an aquaponics unit. The owner already has contracts to grow vegetables and herbs for the restaurants in town. Liam looked at the requirements and he met and understood most of them through his work on the Mason Street Farm project. He was hired on the spot and has begun his career as an engineer.
He would not have had this opportunity if it weren’t for our partnership with Limbic Media. I have nothing but gratitude. Together, we have developed our local young talent to enter the booming tech scene. The Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry has a structure that allowed this partnership to happen. I would personally like to see this happening throughout the entire province. Contact me if you would like to learn how.
27 Oct, 2016
by Jake Comments Off on PSII and VYPC paddling collaboration…
One of the learners at the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII) is a national paddling champion. His club, VYPC (Victoria Youth Paddling Club) is a 15 minute walk from the school.
He has demonstrated excellent entrepreneurial skills hurdling the obstacles to get the school paddling outrigger canoes. I honestly thought that we were not going to be able to do it. Hurdle after hurdle jumped and we have now been paddling for 5 weeks. We are planning to go the entire winter unless it is absolutely miserable out there.
The goals are to develop our technique and strength so we can head out past the break water and do some surfing. We have a fabulous training ground. The Gorge waterway in Victoria is a beautiful location. Today, it was so calm. It is my favorite morning of the school week. I love being out on the water.
This is the kind of work that I would like to see from all of the kids. Find your calling and don’t take no for an answer.
25 Oct, 2016
by Jake Comments Off on Writing on Medium
We performed 5 sold out shows in the very small and funky Intrepid Theater.
“5 people with different backgrounds and experiences have come together because ofthe things we do. We are not lion tamers, or sporting sequin covered unitards, we are simple people that do contemporary circus.
What is Contemporary Circus? “Contemporary circus, or nouveau cirque (as it was originally known in French-speaking countries), is a genre of performing art developed in the later 20th century in which a story or a theme is conveyed through traditional circus skills.” An example of traditional circus would be Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, while Cirque du Soleil would be considered contemporary.
But Cirque du Soleil is not the only contemporary circus, there are many and now there is us. We may be new and we may be small, but we are driven, authentic, and human.
This show is about finding common ground between people.”
24 Jun, 2016
by Jake Comments Off on Another year developing entrepreneurship, startups, and freelancers in high school…
It has been another intense year of learning how to make innovative products, develop entrepreneurial processes, how to work as startups, and understand the importance of leadership.
Last year, the small engineering team built the cubes for VIATEC. By the end of it, I had just about had it with hardware and vowed to not return to it. Yet, return we did…
One of the students had an idea for a lightwall that would use sensors to capture people’s images and display them with LEDs. We pitched it to Dan Gunn,the chief of VIATEC, and he said that he did not overly have a use for it. What he did need though, was some work for a potential installation at the Victoria airport. They wanted to show off Victoria’s strong tech sector and how we work hard to make things happen in a funky, cool, interactive exhibit. This was very exciting to the team (well, some of the team, a bunch decided to not pursue this mission).
In the middle of where the exhibit was going to be is a pillar. Dan gave us the idea of creating a structure around the pillar, representing the people in the airport who were arriving and departing through LEDs, all in a steam punk design. This really got our entrepreneurial juices flowing and we got to work on planning and modelling.
We planned to have a clock on the outside as well as numerous gears and moving parts to really give it that steam punk feel. In the middle would be strips of LEDs. The bottom, representing departures, would be blue and at the top, representing arrivals, would be white. We would then tap into the airport’s API and have a real time representation of the people who are coming and going in the airport using LEDs as they move up and down grid. Very, very cool.
I am not an engineer, my strength is as an entrepreneur and making connections. I got to work trying to figure out how we were going to make this all happen as we lacked some resources both in knowledge and equipment. I was able to find a metal fabricator who was willing to construct the internal frame. I then reached out to Ladies Learning Code, who are amazing and they wholeheartedly were ready and willing to help us tackle the API. They then put us in touch with a super cool guy named Ben Abromovitch who went through the VIATEC incubator coming out the other end with this interesting app to control LED light strips. He was obviously going to give us a hand on the LED side. I felt that we were really striving to achieve the purpose of the project – to show off how Victoria can come together as a community to make, grow, and progress together.
Unfortunately, the timing just did not work out. We were running out of school year and the permits and proceses of the airport were just not going to line up. So, we had all of these LEDs kicking around and we needed to do something with them. I had just produced a big circus show, and for it, we created a rather large tetrahedron made from angle iron. We actually didn’t end up using it in the show, and I was like, what the heck am I going to do with this thing? My mind jumped to the LEDs. Of course! So, I brought it to the school. It did not fit in the door. So, we had to cut it in half.
The team then enthusiastically jumped on the project. A little too quickly. Luckily, at this time, we had an engineering student teacher who really helped the process. Again, I am definitely not an engineering type. I did not realize the amount of power we needed to run this thing – it was a crap ton of power. Way, way more than I was thinking. As this was a “salvage the year let’s build some hardware project”, it was not properly planned nor executed to the best of our abilities. We ran into numerous problems and roadblocks. We were able to fire up a side which looked so amazing (the picture does not do it justice):
But when we tried to get all 3 sides going, we kept hitting problem after problem. We also ran out of school year. We will have to pick it up again at the beginning of next year to finish it off. One of our talented robotics students is going to build a mechanized sign for the top of it and we are going to put it in the front window as a (hopefully) effective marketing tool for the school.
The kids laugh at me, but after this year, I am swearing off hardware for awhile.
While all of this was going on, we were also working in a serious piece of software, building an art platform for Limbic Media.
This was our 3rd year collaborating with Limbic Media and we had yet to make something that actually worked. Again, no more hardware, we were going software all the way this year. And we did it! The team got to MVP (minimum viable product) by year end. It is still under wraps until September where we will go into alpha.
Collectively, they wrote over 16,000 lines of code, did hundreds of mock ups, QA, and much more. They had to work through so many technical challenges and truly learned so much about how to develop not just a piece of software, but a platform. I cannot think of a greater learning experience for the times we live in. Most importantly though, they are learning how to truly work together as a team. There are still human problems to be ironed out next year. And that is where it really counts. It is quite easy to bring in some technical expertise to fix a tricky issue, it is much harder to fix people issues. In every organization, it always comes down to talented leadership. If I can instill how to really work together, how to step up and lead, it is the greatest thing I can do for society as whole as they are going to leave school and know how to make this happen.
To facilitate building this software, we used scrum. We have been using a lot of scrum principles at the school, but this team actually did true scrum and it was impressive to see the results. I swear by it as a tool to implement disciplined processes in building a startup. As scrum master for the third year, I am learning how to effectively ensure the team are completing sprints and feeling good about it all. Not easy to do in a regular startup, even harder with teenagers.
I have to give a huge shout out and thank you to Manjinder Benning, director of Limbic Media, for still believing in us and our school even after years of failing to produce something that works. His company is shooting for the moon this year with a major product launch, and he still found the time to come in every two weeks for sprint reviews and set up our work as the product owner. I can’t thank him enough for providing mentorship and insight to our aspiring tech workers and entrepreneurs.
What is amazing, is that this will carry on into next year. MVP is just the first step. We plan to go into alpha in September, beta by mid winter and then fully launch by the end of the next school year. This is a tremendous opportunity, one that is so rare in most schools. Most schools do not even allow their students a month-long project, let alone one that will take 2 years to complete.
As a performer, I love producing shows, and this year I felt that I needed to step up the school show a level or two. The learners created some compelling original content. Part of this was developing costumes and make-up. I had 2 students whose goals are to become a costume designer and make-up artist respectively. As I have spent years as a freelancer/artist, I try to provide as much insight, skills, and knowledge into becoming a successful solopreneur. This is really easy to do when people are allowed to follow their passion. This is what they want to do with their lives, so they are all ears. In my experience from 10 years in education, it is much more difficult to impart wisdom when students are not at all interested.
Most importantly, the skills that these 2 learners developed were beyond just their chosen craft. They both had to consult with the performers, ask numerous questions, re-evaluate, come back at the performers again, and again, until everyone agreed on the requirements and aesthetics. They learned how to work together in a small team to create an overall, purposeful effect for the show design. They had to remain nimble, changing on the fly as we ran into problems. I strongly believe that these are some of the most important skills to leave high school with.
An example of their collaboration (you can read about how it was created here):
As an entrepreneur, I love to be surprised with new, potentially profitable information. This year, I was thoroughly introduced to the phenomenal rise of eSports, Valve, and Steam. A small group gathered around CS:GO (Counterstrike Global Offensive). This is a huge market that I was totally unaware of. Apparently, you can design skins for guns in the game. They get voted on in the community and if they make it to the top, they will be put in the game. It is sheer genius. Valve (if you do not know them, look them up) has created passionate players all over the world who are designers and enthusiastically develop high level graphics for the company. They literally have the world as their pipeline of talent.
If one of your skins gets in the game, people can make upwards of $12,000 per day for the first few days they are released. That definitely got my attention. So off we worked, trying to organize them around scrum philosophy. They did well for a bit, but the team fractured. What was left, were 2, totally dedicated, fanatic 15 year olds learning how to become top level graphic designers. We are committed to getting something into the game and making $40,000. I get 10%. I have them for 3 more years, I am sure we can do it.
One of the guys did a full mathematical analysis of why he was getting the views and likes he was getting and how to ensure that he gets maximum effect for his work that will get noticed and be put in the game. Here is one of his top ranked:
The other guy has gone just about as far as I can see anyone improving in one year. He has become a full fledged designer, hustling for work in forums, making pocket money doing intros, banners, and branding for YouTubers. He has done well and gained numerous clients, practicing his craft over and over (if you need something done, go here).
Again, I am encouraging them to work together as a small team, and at the same time, develop their talent and move as far as they can in their freelance abilities. This will be their future, and it is best that they learn it now, at the start of high school. As I said, we can do this together for 3 more years. That gives them a gigantic amount of time to practice and become experts in their craft as well as pick up critical entrepreneurial skills to move their ideas forward.
Lastly, as I was developing Island Circus Space this winter, I had a group of students helping me. And did they ever! They made the website, filmed video, did our photo shoot, put up posters, developed music, passed out handbills, wrote content, helped with social media…
…and designed the main poster that was put up all over town:
In the process of helping me, they learned many freelance and entrepreneurial skills. I am just trying to give them opportunities to practice their skills, build up repertoire and become professionals as quickly as possible. I tried to utilize their diverse talents. I gave them major responsibility and they came through for me.
Freelance and entrepreneurial skills, while different, have so much crossover. It is my mission in life to develop high functioning, disciplined teams, and raise people’s talent through continuous integration of learning. These are a few examples of the work that I do to change the education system to where it needs to be today. I have many more.