Julia Fliss is an educator, activist, world changer, lifelong learner, creative, and yogi, who lives and teaches in the mountains of Evergreen, Colorado. She loves all things #TeachSDGs, #RestoreHumanity, #ShapingAFairerWorld, #TakeActionEdu, #WorldChangersAreNoisy, #UnlimitedTeacher, and #Solutionary, and has made it her life’s mission to advocate for student voice, agency, and the power of transformative pedagogy and global collaboration within our current education system. She is on the Board of Directors for the Human Restoration Project, is a #TeachSDG Ambassador, and recently became a #TakeActionProject Amplifier. We met Julia through Twitter in February, when she began incorporating and sharing our humane education resources and using our Solutionary Guidebook with her sixth-grade students. We were bowled over by her brilliance, creativity, energy, and her extraordinary gifts as an educator. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have turned to Julia to learn how teachers can bring solutionary education to their students while school buildings are closed.
IHE: We are facing unprecedented times during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is especially true for teachers. You’ve managed to approach your school closure with positivity, preparing your students for opportunities that lie ahead through home-based learning. Can you tell us about how your students are handling this shift and your plans for their learning while they’re at home?
Julia: We just completed our first week of online learning, and my students (whom I call my kids) are shining like never before. While we’re all still getting our feet on the ground, I feel like my kids have an advantage, in that we’ve always brought the world into our classroom in a way that inspires critical thinking, creativity, and a deep dive into a learning framework that celebrates authenticity, voice, and student-driven design. My kids are “resident experts” at noticing what’s going on in the world. We ask deep questions; create space and learning opportunities to make sense of the world around us; problem find and problem solve; envision solutions; and share and reflect daily.
Recently, we’ve been working on our #SDGAction Projects [SDG stands for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals]. We’ve laid a fantastic foundation that includes so many real-world applications, which we’ll now use as our launch point for online learning.
Our work includes these elements:
- Applying our collective experience of the #GoalsProject to our current learning model
- Sourcing our own passions to determine our individual SDG “Take Action Projects”
- Learning to interpret and apply graphs, maps, and charts to deepen our understanding of complex issues
- Building media literacy by recognizing and identifying credible websites and trusted experts
- Infusing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to build empathy & promote good health and wellbeing
- Integrating the Inspire Citizens Student Leadership Toolkits and Global Impact Self-Study as well as Dr. Lindsay Portnoy’s Designed To Learn frameworks to ground our work
- Infusing the Colorado Department of Education 6th Grade ELA Curriculum, JeffCo Generations Vision, and EMS Mission Statement into everything we do
IHE: What do you see as the best possible outcomes during this time when students are not in school, and how can teachers help these positive outcomes be achieved?
Julia: One of the best possible outcomes I see is a strengthening of relationships in a way that supports, encourages, and celebrates a collaborative learning journey at home. This time could provide us with a reconnection to our core values and goals that reunites the family unit and allows for a true celebration of what it means to be a community, to be present, and to celebrate home.
When we shared a few positives about our first week of home-based learning, my kids overwhelmingly highlighted that they feel so much more connected to their parents, pets, and siblings. They’re playing games, making dinner side by side, and creating learning adventures together. I even had three different students share with me that they actually taught their parents (who are teachers) how to use some of the technology we’re utilizing in our class so that they could use it to teach their own students!
Another potential and incredibly exciting outcome for me is the clear opportunity we now have to transform the educational system. Our kids deserve authentic learning opportunities that help unleash their fullest potential; acknowledge and celebrate their voices; and are rooted in creating global citizens and solutionaries. Given the shift that’s currently underway in school districts across the country, now is the time to truly make that happen!
In my district, state standardized tests have been cancelled for this year. Some schools are even suspending grading, and looking at engagement, participation, and effort instead. These are shifts that I believe should continue and expand as we move from crisis to integration of this global learning experience. In the words of my Superintendent, Dr. Jason Glass, “In the midst of this public health crisis, we also have the opportunity to make breakthroughs in how an entire community of children and professionals learn. We must not let this moment pass.”
IHE: What concerns you most about school closures, and how are you addressing those concerns? What ideas do you have about how we can address them as a society?
Julia: One of the most pressing concerns I have about school closures is the missed opportunity for our kids to connect with each other socially in the same physical space. When asked, most of my students admit that while they do love to learn, the best part about school is seeing their friends. We’re social creatures. We need human connection.
In the time leading up to our school’s closure, we talked openly about this challenge. We used both cognitive and compassionate empathy tools from Inspire Citizens to talk through the challenges of learning from home. We integrated these conversations with the #TakeActionProject to discuss community, and what it means to work together to envision, call for, and create change in the world. We talk about fixed, growth, and benefit mindsets along with proactive versus reactive thinking. All this was meant to provide tools, strategies, and steps we could all take in order to stay centered during this challenging period.
I’m scaffolding my online lessons and creating a virtual space to first address my kids’ needs, which ultimately strengthens our community. Each day we begin with a Writer’s Notebook entry that checks in on their health and well being. I’m offering them a place to dig deep into their learning process and personal wellness. I’m creating structures that help them balance screen time with nonscreen time, and I’m asking them to get their hands messy using their imagination and creativity. I’m also encouraging them to share their learning journeys with their parents and offering ways to celebrate every day.
As an example, I use Google Classroom to relay each day’s “learning adventure” and provide a central hub for creating a shared learning experience. We also use Google Chat as a constant conversation space to answer questions and support each other, as well as Zoom to stay connected in real-time. During our first week, I Zoom-conferenced twice with each of my classes (eight total). The first Zoom was to connect, support, and answer questions after we heard the news that “school” would be “closed” for longer than we originally thought. The second was our “Celebration of Learning” after our first week.
I would say that the biggest challenge kids, teachers, and parents are facing is that we’ve never done this before, so we’ve all been launched into the unknown. There’s some flailing, but the best part is that although they’ve never done this before, our kids know how to rise.
IHE: What ideas do you have for moving forward beyond this pandemic?
Julia: We need to keep these practices going! Let’s use this pandemic as a chance to transform the system. Let’s empower our kids to approach every life event as an opportunity to learn, reflect, and act. Let’s reevaluate what education is providing kids. Let’s expose the fact that many kids are not getting what they need from their home environment and talk about how this spills over into the education system, and how we help those kids.
IHE: In the past month, before your school closed, you began bringing humane education to your students and educating them to be solutionaries. What inspired you? Can you tell our readers about what unfolded in your classroom once you began doing solutionary work?
Julia: As a huge proponent of transformative pedagogy, I’ve always prioritized humane education in my classroom. From my first teaching “job” at West High School in Denver, CO until now, I’ve created a learning space that put my students’ needs above all else and looked to them for what’s next. I’ve centralized my teaching on building relationships and creating learning opportunities to help my students understand the world and their place in it. This journey has taken me to many magical places and on many brilliant adventures, the most recent of which is Twitter. Through Twitter, I have connected with one of the most dynamic pools of educators I’ve ever met: educators who have pushed my thinking, shared resources, and helped me to expand my own vision for what I believe education should be. One of these educators (and there have been so many) is Steve Sostak, of Inspire Citizens. Steve’s work – to “collaborate with schools, teachers, and students in designing effective professional learning, relevant curriculum enhancements, longitudinal research, and applied learning for compassionate community action built upon: civic consciousness, intercultural competence, collective wellbeing, sustainable development” – has inspired me to launch my own teaching, learning, and collaborating to the next level. Through my connection with him, I first learned about the Institute for Humane Education, and what it means to be a solutionary.
From the first moment I saw the word solutionary, I knew I needed to learn more. When Steve shared IHE’s website, I went down a rabbit hole that has truly changed me as a human being. Once I started digging into IHE’s resources, mindset, and offerings, I knew I was at the next phase of my own evolution.
Enter the Solutionary Guidebook. Building on prior work, including the “Goals Project” created by Jennifer Williams, we set out to pinpoint a problem in our community/the world that we felt passionate about addressing, and which connected to the Sustainable Development Goals. IHE’s graphic in the Solutionary Guidebook, with the following guiding questions, was useful.
Then we created a Root Cause Diagram and, using Design Thinking, expanded our vision to include potential solutions. This is where the Solutionary Guidebook worked its magic. Starting with the “Let’s Educate a Generation of Solutionaries” video, we embraced the #SolutionaryMindset and experimented with defining, understanding, and identifying Solutionary Solutions to problems that already exist around us.
We dug deep into our previous definition of a World Changer (which is someone who is committed to changing the world from the inside out) and decided to up our game by becoming solutionaries – people who walk their talk and are willing to do what it takes on the inside in order to truly be the change they want to see in the world. After team-reading sections of the Solutionary Guidebook and sections of Zoe Weil’s book, The World Becomes What We Teach, we adopted the MOGO principle of doing the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment, and used it to drive our questions, choices, and visions.
To gather authentic feedback, we then used the Solutionary Solution rubric to evaluate each other’s ideas for their MOGO-ness and “tested” our prototypes during a Solutionary Gallery Walk and Jam Session.
We then topped off our work with a special guest Zoom conference with Zoe herself!
To say my kids loved it is an understatement. We now put on our Solutionary lenses for everything (even in our online learning space). We use the MOGO principle to drive our choices, vision, and everyday life experiences. Currently, we are planning for a Solutionary Fair – which will likely now be online – that will not only celebrate our learning but also teach others in our community about what it means to be a part of the #SolutionaryGeneration.
IHE: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Julia: Inspired by the work of Inspire Citizens and Dr. Lindsay Portnoy, author of Designed to Learn, I created this Root Cause visual to graphically gather my thoughts about the current situation and how it relates to the Sustainable Development Goals. I plan to use this image with my kids as we launch back into learning and our SDG Action projects next week. I will ask each of my kiddos to ask questions, share thoughts, and make connections to their own #SDGAction projects to honor our collective experience and use it as a foundation with which to move forward powerfully.
I’d like to share some closing thoughts. We get to use this common experience as a bond that makes us stronger. We get to help our kids learn and grow from it. We get to let them use it to navigate their life path and choices in a way that inspires them to be their best. And we get to use this to grow, heal, and change.
Both my Principal and one of my kiddo’s parents shared this poem with me recently. This voice of calm speaks to the heart of our learning now.