Professional Learning

Thinking on Her Feet: The Making of an Educational Innovator

July 10, 2007

When single mom Kelly Stern moved to Hawaii in 1990, she did not know the local public school system was poorly rated in educational quality compared to those in other states across the nation. Private schools were financially out of her reach, so Stern reached out to other families in similar situations.

Proficient in home-schooling techniques, yet insecure about going solo with her two young sons, she created a consortium of home-school families to share the responsibility of learning based on the concept of a one-room schoolhouse. She assigned curricula according to each parent's talents in the group, coaching her friends on how to engage their collective children during "class."

Each year, her consortium focused on one main project in addition to the daily lessons that integrated art, music, science, math, language arts, geography, social studies, health, and physical education. Parents who opted not to teach were instead involved in maintaining school safety and monitoring school behavior.

That was seventeen years ago.

Stern is now director of student-support services at a conversion charter school on the Big Island. She is also busy designing her own business, SmartKids International, a company that facilitates decision making for families by connecting them to innovative options and resources that enhance their children's intellectual capital and skill sets.

One day not so long ago, Stern was asked to substitute teach one period for a sixth-grade class. Following is Stern's own third-person description of her experience:

"With a flinch of anxiety, her mind races as she dashes to greet the eager students waiting for a teacher who did not show today. Thinking on her feet, since there are no lesson plans, she has one hour and eight minutes to kill. She decides to have the students envision the school they would design, given the opportunity.

"She greets the students and quickly calms them by asking each of them to close their eyes and imagine coming to school this morning: The yellow bus that usually picks them up is unlike any they have ever imagined. This one is a Porsche bus. Every seat has air-conditioning and a place to plug in a laptop so they can check their email (with an imaginary advance in technology allowing Internet access from your car).

"When they arrive at school, the students discover it is no longer just a set of rectangular buildings. Trees have grown like an Ewok village of tree houses right from Return of the Jedi, and a new school has replaced the old one. Each student climbs ladders and crosses bridges to each tree-house classroom. They are greeted by teachers eager for today's lesson; as each student nestles in their beanbag chair with their laptop, the teacher whispers, 'What is it you want to learn?' and each student responds with three ideas."

As Stern ends the kindling of these students' imagination, she asks them to write down three things they want to learn. She collects the lists, and, as she begins to read the answers, she has one of those "A-ha!" moments that reminds her that teaching is the greatest profession, for in her hands she holds the treasures that would lead her and a classroom of sixth graders into a year of discovery, should each one have the chance to actualize the very thing they are curious about.

Following are some examples of what they wrote:

  • "I would want to know more about how music was started!"
  • "Why was black history so important?"
  • "How did the ancient Greeks build the Parthenon with such heavy materials and without modern material?"
  • "How did soccer get started?"
  • "How did the Greeks forge weapons?"
  • "What's at the very top of all the food chains put together?"
  • "How can I make inventions that no one has seen before?"
  • "Can a twelve-year-old kid write books and actually get them published?"
  • "How was sign language created?"

I invite you to comment on this article -- and let me know if you have any visions of a perfect school.

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