Tag Archives: Dennis Littky

Starting Up (Arrastía & Hoffman) – Almost a Review

I admit to having felt the stirrings to repair the traditional school.  In the epigraph of a new book edited by Lisa Arrastía and Marvin Hoffman, Maxine Greene writes,

Most of us realize that, only when we envisage a better social order, do we find the present one in many ways unendurable and stir ourselves to repair.  The sight and description of the new schools at the present time … make it uniquely possible to identify what is wrong with the traditional schools.”

I have asked for as long as I have been in education the main seminal question, “How could we do this better?” and so it was the title, first and foremost, that grabbed my attention when I saw the book,  Starting Up: Critical Lessons From 10 New Schools.

Truth be told, it was also the fact that the book was lying on Dennis Littky’s desk and he had just recommended it – sort of.  My colleagues and I were visiting the Met school in Providence, Rhode Island, and we had managed to finagle an hour of Littky’s time, something I knew going in was unlikely, but we offered doughnuts and an early start and Dennis agreed.  As a school leader and an innovator, Dennis Littky has been around the block a few times, and I have been inspired by his work and ideas for years.  Together with Elliot Washor, Dennis started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) and Big Picture Learning, which has nurtured a few dozen Met schools in this county and abroad.  Beyond his accomplishments in education, and they are many, Dennis is plain spoken and he is clear in what he believes about education.  These are qualities I find easy to admire.

So, in a conversation that turned to innovative educational models, I asked him, “What should we be reading?”  Dennis has just a few stacks of well-chosen books in his office, and many of them are duplicates, which suggested to me that he hands them out, keeping them for targeted distribution.  Maybe he would send us home with a gem.  Not so.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “How about this?  This looks good.”

He picked up a copy of Arrastía & Hoffman’s book that was on the table, eyeballed it briefly, and then flipped it toward me.

“I haven’t read it.  Someone just sent it to me.  Maybe there is something in there.”

And indeed there is.  It turns out that Littky and Washor have a chapter in the book, and it is one of the better.

Starting Up is interesting the way a war story is interesting.  I found myself engaging in other people’s experiences and feeling grateful they weren’t mine.  Not all of the chapters tell tales of failure or defeat, but they all convey the adversity and challenge of trying to start something new in an old system.  And they are all cautionary.  The authors, for the most part, tell their stories and try in earnest to provide helpful insight, presumably for those coming after – as if the same pitfalls and traps sprung by these explorers will still be waiting.  And this is the false assumption the book makes.

Tales of headache, bureaucracy, abandonment, and betrayal are just that.  They are universal experiences that never happen the same way twice.  Where the book fails is where it reads like a treasure map, labeling paths to take, places to go, and traps to avoid.  It does communicate the depth of pain and possibility in the endeavor to educate kids, and they are amazing stories, no doubt, but in the end, they are just 10 stories that, like all first person accounts, didn’t happen quite the way they are told.  The lessons are particular to the tellers, not universally communicable.

In preparation for the arrival of our first born child, my wife and I took a series of birthing classes.  Of particular interest to us was an evening toward the end in which several new parents were to visit our class to tell their stories.  My wife and I, both somewhat over-achieving, looked forward to this as a way to prepare for the eventualities that might befall us and thereby have the best birthing experience possible.  We took notes.

And then one new father said something that was true on a different level.  He said, in listening to all of the stories of childbirth, the only thing we could be sure of was that our experience would be different.  I wouldn’t happen the way we had heard it.  We stopped taking notes.

Starting Up reminded me of a child birthing class.  The subtitle, Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, promises to prepare you for what might go wrong, but if you are starting a new school, like giving birth to child, the only thing you can be sure of is that your experience will be different.  It won’t happen the way you hear it.  And in talking to a host of innovators, initiators, and founders in the last year, I have not yet heard one say, “My experience was typical.  I heard it would happen this way.”

The only exception to the narcissism that plagues Starting Up is the chapter written by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  Written as a modified Q & A, it is even different in format from the others.  It reads like the transcription of Littky and Elliot simply talking, reminiscing about old times, the early days, what they were thinking way back when.  Their chapter avoids lessons learned and insights gained and opts instead to create an ambient tone of realism, hope, and encouragement, which is most of what is truly helpful in talking about starting a school.

So, with books stacked in his office and on his desk, some of them clearly for give away, why did Dennis refrain from recommending any of them to us?  Because in any pioneering effort, like starting a school, exploring Mars, or giving birth to a child, the experience of others is not what matters.  We make the path by walking.  And Washor says as much on page 62:

This leads to one of the other points, which is about starting before everything is completely and totally planned out.  We both feel it is a big mistake for a lot of people when they do so much planning that nothing ever gets off the drawing board.  They actually think they know what the playbook is going to look like before they have done the school.  Doing all of this work was a difficult decision because we didn’t even know if it was going to pass the state legislature, but we decided to go for it because the only way to figure it out was to do it. The commissioner said years later, “The most important thing you did was to start.”

And that is the most important line in the whole book.

  • Arrastia, Lisa, and Marvin Hoffman. Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools. New York: Teachers College, 2012. Print.

The Role of Introversion and Schools of the Future

A couple of worthwhile ruminations here.  By rumination I don’t mean matters of small, passing, and primarily intellectual import.  The life of the mind sometimes takes a beating, trivialized as not quite as exciting or real as the life of the body.  I disagree, as, I think writer Susan Cain (see below) would, too.  In fact, I mean these are ideas we should take seriously, consider deeply, glean insights from, and strive to incorporate into our lives and the way we think about people and the world.  It takes an active effort to meet ideas like these half way and an open-minded willingness to be moved by them.


The first is Susan Cain and a Ted talk she gave about the value of introversion.  Introverts, too, have been taking a beating lately.  In education especially, as the recent drive for collaboration, teamwork, and group decision making – all powerful creative tools – reaches a fevered pitch.  More than anything, I hear Susan Cain reminding us to stay open-minded and positive about different cognitive styles, and to regain our balanced center in issues of workplace productivity.  Introversion and extroversion, active teamwork and contemplative isolation, collaboration and autonomy – they all have their valued place.  The better functioning schools of the future – like the most creative organizations today – will know and trust this.

And this follows on the heals of an article I circulated previously.  Susan Cain’s New York Times piece called The Rise of the New Groupthink, January 15, 2012 (linked below.)  Again, Cain is not suggesting that teamwork and collaboration are ineffective or misguided or should be dispensed with.  Nor am I.  In posting these I am arguing that in the current climate of education, introversion is vastly undervalued – and in some cases demonized.

Enjoy: The Rise of the New Groupthink


The second is a recent interview from an online professional community called The Future of Education.  Steve Hargadon, the community’s moderator, interviewed Littky on February 24, 2012, and the audio file is available below.  Dr. Littky talks about his Big Picture Learning organization, a large-scale innovation in education that he started with his colleague, Dr. Elliot Washor, in 1995 to make schooling more responsive to the notion of relevance, authenticity, and individual student interest.  The Big Picture Learning idea is an amazing development and it has spawned dozens of schools nationally and internationally.

The most amazing thing to me about the story of Dennis Littky and the quest for better schooling is the origin of his particular set of ideas.  In 1981 Littky became principal at Thayer Junior/Senior High School in New Hampshire.  Thayer, by any meaningful measure, was a failing school.  Littky writes briefly about it in his book The Big Picture, and Susan Kammeraad-Campbell writes at length about it in her book, Doc; The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School.  The changes Littky and his team were to make over the ensuing years were big and fundamental and effective – and simple.  Having read his book and listened to his interview, what strikes me is that his take on education and what works for students is not rooted in arcane knowledge or revelation, not a spontaneous act of brilliance.  In fact, when faced with a failing school, disengaged students, and disheartened teachers, Littky made the obvious choice: focus on community, real world relevance, and the interests of students.  What could make more sense?

In the interview, you will hear the interviewer, Steve Hargadon say with some incredulity – “It all seems so logical” – and Littky’s response is appropriately incredulous – “Well, of course!  Why not?” (quoted inexactly.)

Enjoy: The Future of Education – Littky interview