Better Together in Community

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All are meant to live in community. Following hurricanes and floods, communities come together. After incidents like the Las Vegas tragedy, communities rally together. When two young girls lose their mother to cancer, the community circles around in support. We are all at our best when we are in community. Being alone and isolated for long periods of time doesn’t bring the happiness that communal life can bring.


We are living in a time when the power of community can heal trauma, impact the effects of mental illness, strength our compassion for others, and rebuild crumbling social structures. Learning how to live in community begins at home and continues into our schools. Schools are laboratories for community building that are maximized when they occur in tandem with a variety of partners.


Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and write in community with some incredible educators from around the country as a part of the #EDWriteNow project. The concepts of the project was to bring ten writers together in one location to write 5000 words each about how we should reconsider and change a variety of aspects of education. With the support of Routledge Publishing, we completed this amazing project in July that will support an organization that believes in this power of community,  The Will to Live Foundation.


The focus of my writing for this project revolved around the question of how we can change the way that we think about partnerships in schools. Below is an excerpt from my chapter.


As we move from a time when it takes a village to support all children to a time where it takes a global village and deep partnerships to do the same work, it is essential that we begin to shift the understanding of what it means to partner with schools in a way that creates a genuine modern community around students and adult learners.


Many schools are pursuing new and different community partnerships to support their modern learning environments. In some places, these are emerging out of strengths as resources in the community are entering the district to both supplement and supplant. They are also surrounding good and excellent programming to give students additional experiences and opportunities. In other locations, partnership development is coming from shrinking budgets and the need to supplement classroom teaching because of teacher shortages or lack of supplies.


We are in a time when it takes a cohort of educators and partners to bring the rich learning experiences that kids need. It is essential that all classrooms, schools, and districts continue to look at community partnerships as a way to bring modern learning experiences to all kids. Seeking these partnerships is the right and moral thing to do for all of our students as the learning outcomes that we seek grow more and more complex.


I’m excited to see how this book comes together, and I encourage you to read the blogs of the other contributors as we approach the publish date in December. Jeff Zoul addressed changing the way we think about change by looking at how and why we need to make changes with today’s changing times. Next, Tony Sinanis wrote about changing the way we see learning, a vital conversation. Third, Kayla Delzer, followed up with ideas about changing the way we think about relationships in school. In previewing the fourth chapter of our book, Starr Sackstein, dove into changing the way we think about assessment. Tom Murray touched on changing the way we think about technology in the classroom. The amazing Sanee Bell wrote on the importance of teacher engagement. The genius of Amber Teamann shines through as she wrote about the need to change the way we lead.


It is amazing how community shapes our lives, fills our souls, and shines a bright light on the best that we can be as individuals and as a collective. The weight of these times and its tragedies are best healed together in spaces of comfort, compassion, and intentional contemplation. Let us grow our places of learning to realize all that is possible when we come together as one.  






Biomimicry in Learning Space Design


Here are my remarks from the Transitions17 conference sponsored by the University of Melbourne. 

Thanks to everyone involved with #Transitions17. It is amazing to share the stage with so many incredible scholars and represent the students, staff, and community of the School District of University City. My name is Dr. Robert Dillon, and I serve as the Director of Innovation for University City Schools in Saint Louis Louis. In addition, I work with teachers, leaders, and districts around the country to build the capacity needed to have rich conversations about learning space design.

Much of this journey is captured in a book that I coauthored with Rebecca Hare called The Space: A Guide for Educators. The book, much like this conference, is designed to share trapped wisdom, move the conversation forward, and get educators thinking like designers.

Many incredible questions have emerged from the last few years of conversations with educators, but there is one question that won’t go away, and it is the basis for my recent research with our middle school in University City. The question is,  “what if we already know all of the answers?” It is an odd question for a research gathering, but it is this question that shapes my work.

Does nature know the answers surrounding how we should design spaces? Is nature, even in its most violent moments, speaking to us about how we should design spaces for learning? I do believe that every step we take in nature holds clues to the types of learning habitats that support the learning habits that we desire for students.

Many artists have spent their career exploring these same questions. From Georgia O’Keefe’s communing in New Mexico with the essential aspects her surroundings to the amazing work of Andy Goldsworthy, who bring us sculptures that are baked in the wisdom of his surroundings. These artists coupled with my moments of noticing have led me to start the conversation with students and teachers at University City that before we talk optimal space design, we owe it to ourselves to explore the wisdom of biomimicry.

Many have asked why we would do this and what are the true solutions that we are trying to pursue through our design work. The answer is complex,  and it takes some background about University City,  to see the challenges that we experience and why design and spaces are central to our solution making.

6.8 miles from University City is the city of Ferguson. Just over three years ago before the wounds of racism and slavery opened in places like Charlottesville, Minneapolis, and Baltimore, Ferguson was the epicenter of anger around systemic oppression. The murder of Michael Brown threw a blanket over our community as well, writing a single narrative about the inevitable outcome of our students and how they would travel on the school to prison pipeline. Our work to envelop our students with healing spaces mattered deeply.

We were also looking for ways for our classrooms to be places that positively impacted the experience gap of students in this country. As students return to school, we knew that our students wouldn’t have the variety and quality of learning experiences outside of school, and this would figuratively coat them with teflon. This teflon suit would prevent learning from sticking to our students. To battle this, we realized that all of our learning space needed to turn teflon into velcro, so that learning would stick to our students and we could begin to close the experience gap that too many of our students experience.

Finally, we are designing spaces, having conversations, thinking about biomimicry, and noticing nature because just over 70% of our students experience poverty in their lives. Though rich in spirit, many of our students need the benefits of excellent learning spaces to combat, trauma, fatigue, and negative energy that surrounds them.

With all of this in tow, we started to design our first space with the hope that it would help to heal with nature’s solutions. The space was formerly a meeting room and computer lab that had aged and grow old, and it was an energy vampire of a space.

To begin the transformation, we studied Dr. David Thornburg’s work around promoting communication and a sense of community in classrooms. The idea of a campfire being a gathering place, the water hole filling us with ideas and conversation. We also looked at the importance of the cave and quiet space and the idea that a space needs to feel alive and energizes by all that it is.

We were also dedicated to giving the space time to breathe. We believed that the best space transformations can’t go from a full old space to a full new space. The space needs time for the mental models of its past to fade and the possibility of what could be surface.

Our new space is emerging, notice that I say emerging, and not completed because I have a hard time believing that learning spaces are ever complete. We are dedicated to continuing our journey with biomimicry and learning about the solutions that nature may have already designed for us. We are looking to nature in a few areas already.

Erosion is nature’s way of letting us know that gravity is strong. Where are the nature places where gravity impacts our rooms? Does this support learning or inhibit it?

The flow of the river is powerful, and the ancient saying that you can’t step in the same river twice pushes us to believe that agility and flexibility are cornerstones of a great space.

Sunset is my personal favorite moment of the day. I feel connected, reflective, and a part of something bigger. These are all traits that we want in our modern learners.

The nest is a powerful metaphor in learning. How can we support and nurture while preparing our students to fly. We want our spaces to be a huge part of this process.

We have considered the power of the waterfall, and how it is noisy with purpose. It is also a place where you can feel nature’s power, and we want our classrooms be places where you can feel that same power.

Finally, we consider the fire. Beyond the campfire, the fire needs oxygen and fuel, both things that our classrooms need along with the spark of an amazing teacher.

As we move forward, we are dedicated to a number of things. The first is that we continue to design with and not for students. Too much of formal education is done to kids, and space design doesn’t have to fall in this trap.

We are dedicated to linking our growing learning model around project based learning to the wisdom of nature’s solutions and coupling it with a learning habitat that maximizes possibility.

Our work is focused on a design process that asks all of us to adjust, study, and augment. All  things that can help kids with or without a huge budget to redesign spaces.

So what are our early results. We started school about five week ago in Saint Louis, and in that time we are seeing two clear positive results. Students are showing a deeper engagement in their work in this space, and the students have more joy in their learning. As a middle school principal, I knew that most of my job was to get as many kids loving learning when they left me as possible, and our early results are showing that we are doing this.

What’s next? We want to scale our work. More spaces, more classrooms, more people as a part of the conversation. We want to share our work, which is part of the reason why I’m here, and we know that sharing our work will tighten our message, our purpose, and our ability to deliver the solutions that we think are possible with learning spaces.

We return to the question of whether nature may already have all of the answers. I doubt that nature has all of the answers, but I believe together we has a group of scholars, teachers, leaders, and students that can build the solutions needed to help all students love learning, feel whole, and know that their ideas and voice matter.

Thank you.

Teflon versus Velcro

Experience rich environments create the velcro that we need to attach learning. This is so clear as some students return from a summer full of amazing experiences ready to learn while others return starved of meaningful experiences. They are wilted, and in need of care, support and rebuilding. This second group comes to us with a virtual teflon brain, and it makes it really hard to attach new learning and concepts. We have known for a long time that those with means bolt past those without in the area of life experiences creating an experience gap that is nearly impossible to overcome. This is most evident returning from the summer months. To push back against the velcro versus teflon reality, it is essential to fill our schools with learning experiences that are rich and meaningful. It is essential to surround our students with beauty, caring adults from the community, and opportunities to explore. Let’s make this a sticky year for all kids.

Develop Community Partners to Increase Student Learning

This was originally posted for Edweek HERE

Going it alone in the world of education is a growing fool’s game. The isolated classroom, school, or district is rarely serving the students and community optimally in our interconnected, global economy.

This means that the concept of partnership must be central to the work of educational leaders throughout the country and around the world.

The concept of partnership is growing more complex as well. Though schools need more resources to bring a full portfolio of programs to the school district, partnerships aren’t the seeking of time, talent, and treasure of others to make an impact.

Donations are often confused with partnerships when partnerships are symbiotic in nature. Quality partnerships allow for those connecting with the school to receive from the school district as well. In quality partnerships, the students and staff are closing the loop by contributing to the partner organization with ideas, support, and energy.

Full partnerships are a cornerstone to the Learning Reimagined efforts happening at the School District of University City in Saint Louis, Missouri. Learning Reimagined is a set of principles and a related shift in mindset that is designed to recraft the learning for all students in the district. It is based on three learning pillars that must grow for all students to know the power of formal learning. These pillars are the idea that educations needs to evolve in how it humanizes, personalizes, and problematizes. Each of these pillars are then coupled with deep, meaningful learning experiences that generate engagement and joy for all. This robust philosophy is an answer to the test score chasing model of learning that has infected many districts.

Learning Reimagined is based on what research suggests as best practice, and it combines elements of effective learning that have been incubated around the country for years. It will only continue to be possible if the districts are able to surround the work with modern partners that see our students in terms of their strengths and their ability to solution make around the community. To make this happen, we are focused on four types of partnerships.

Business Community

In this realm, it is first and foremost about building an entrepreneurial spirit in the students of the School District of University City. Our vision is to have students that are deeply embedded with local and regional business partners in a way that allows the partner to the see the value of the fresh eyes and ideas of students in their organization. We also want to build lasting partnerships that allow for internship while in high school, entry level positions for students wanting to move directly into the workforce, and opening doors for our students returning from college looking for careers. This is a model seen in the work of the Center for Advanced Professional

Studies as well as the focus of the internship model that the US Department of Education is looking to accelerate. This will begin in earnest for the district in the fall through the problem based learning work that is being launched in our ninth grade learning center and from pilot projects that will have students serving as marketing, graphic design, and social media experts for a number of small businesses in the community.

Arts Community

The arts activate all learning. This has been a part of the district DNA for fifty years, and it continues with incredible band, orchestra, and dance programs. The evolution of these programs in learning reimagined is to find entry points into these programs for all students, so that the energy of the arts and the natural joy and engagement that the arts can bring to learning can seep into other areas of learning.

Centered in Saint Louis, COCA (Center for Creative Arts) has been a partner with the School District of University City for many years. This partnership now looks for elevation as it now holds itself accountable to the pillars of Learning Reimagined. How might we use the arts expertise in the community to humanize and personalize the learning?

In addition, the concept of authentic audience in partnership also is a part of this work. The disitrict are looking for additional ways to bring community into the performance process as well as wrap more experts into the facilitation of all courses.

Higher Education Community

In the shadow of one of the best universities in the world, the School District of University City should be swimming in the higher education knowledge and wisdom of Washington University in Saint Louis. This hasn’t been the case and when the partnerships were there, they didn’t meet the robust criteria of modern partnership. In the past, the district received, and the university felt good. This reorientation to modern partnership with Washington University in Saint Louis is beginning to impact the professional learning of all educators in the district and the Institute for School Partnership is also making an impact on the STEM mindset in the district.

The language of K-12 and higher education hasn’t always been in sync for the Saint Louis region, but growing there is a growing synergy and a willingness to be at the table and listen has allow saplings to emerge. Learning Reimagined will not be successful without a university partner or partners that see the value in growing amazing citizens through a model that humanizes, personalizes, and problematizes the learning.

These partners need to see the value of bringing a student steeped in modern learning to their campus as an undergraduate because it will enrich the conversation and classroom instruction moving forward. This is a level of partnership that is exciting for our first generation college students and all of the students at University City.

Other School District Partners

Cognitive redundancy is absorbing huge amounts of time in education that could be used for innovation, communication, and restoration. School districts around the country are reinventing wheels that have been launched for decades. Eighty percent of the solutions needed in every school have already been invented, tested, and implemented. Certainly, each district needs to mold the last twenty percent, but no one has the time moving forward to start over on ideas and concepts that the research and practices already shows work.

The School District of University City is dedicated to working with allies in learning locally, regionally, and around the country. This means growing a network of connected educators that can bring ideas and resources to the table from other schools and classrooms.

The district is opening its doors to learning opportunities from Google, Microsoft, and other partners that will bring together innovative educators from around the country in conversation on its campuses.

These intentional partnerships will allow the district to move quickly to transform itself into a nimble, agile learning environment that is filled with joy and creativity for both the teachers and students. These partnerships will allow for fresh resources to enter the district, but most importantly, they will allow the beauty and strength of the students to be a known quantity for everyone in our community and beyond.