Creating Beauty: K12 Changemaker Education Forum

March 10, 2017

(Participants are engaged intellectually, emotionally, and physically in an Inspired Teaching session at the K-12 Education Forum at the Ashoka U Exchange. Photo credit: Ashoka. )

This piece, which highlights Center for Inspired Teaching, was written by David Castro and originally appeared in Medium.

“It’s been a long time, a long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will”

— Sam Cooke

The Capacity to Care by Rakesh JV

The Capacity to Care by Rakesh JV

The Power of One

Can one child help change a school system?

Imagine a little boy who writes a poem of appreciation as part of a changemaker education program in his school. He delivers it to his principal. She’s so touched that she asks him to come to her office to thank him in person. The child has a question:

“How did my poem make you feel?”

“Wonderful,” replies the school leader. “Now what can I do to thank you for the poem you gave me?”

“Write a poem for someone you want to thank,” urges the little fellow.

Deeply inspired, the principal writes a poem of appreciation for one of the school’s custodians. This experience helps to transform the school leader into a change leader.

Well, you don’t have to rely on your imagination for this one. It really happened in the Anne Arundel School District. The changemaking powers of a child spurred an entire system change that had been gathering momentum throughout the whole system. Using experiential and project based learning, teachers and administrators were collaborating to embed changemaking skills in their curriculum. The curricular changes were travelling deep into the system’s DNA, into the culture shared among students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers. All this had come to pass through a unique partnership between the Anne Arundel and Ashoka’s Changemaker Education initiative led by the Youth Venture team.


A Team of Teams

This was just one of many powerful stories shared at the Ashoka Start Empathy 2017 “K12 Changemaker Education Forum” as it unfolded within the larger Ashoka U Exchange that took place in Miami in March. The Forum offered a concentrated series of dialogues, presentations, exercises and open work sessions coventured by a diverse group of change leaders exploring how to tip K12 education in America and beyond. Participants represented different stakeholders in the system: changemaker K12 teachers, school system administrators, school board members, university leaders engaged in the higher education programs that serve K12 schools, social innovators and Ashoka Fellows and Team members working on AshokaU’s Changemaker Campus and Ashoka Start Empathy’s Changemaker Education program.

playworks ashoka u exchange

Forum Participants Experience the Power of Play in Changemaker Development

Walking the talk, the Forum featured design innovations developed through an energetic collaboration among Ashoka-inspired social innovators actively transforming the education space. The team banished panel discussions from the format, focusing instead on “spotlights,” interactive presentations, experiential learning and reflective dialogue inviting the participants to imagine a world where changemaker education revolutionizes teaching and learning, helping students develop their powers as engaged agents of positive social transformation — like the young poet who inspired his principal.

Breakthrough Innovations

The program invited consideration of a number of breakthrough strategies:

  • Exploring a comprehensive database of social innovations relevant to changemaker education. David Bornstein @
  • Allowing teachers to form powerful relationships with students, fueling their development of empathy. Megan Marcus @
  • Helping educators become instigators of thought. Jane Ehrenfeld and Sammy Magnuson @
  • Showcasing changemaker education scaling within entire school districts. CREC, Cromwell Public Schools, Anne Arundel School District
  • Developing changemakers by integrate global competence teaching and learning into classrooms for all K-12 students. Ken Simon and Maria Hersey
  • Showcasing strategies for using personal narrative to help students develop empathy and lead the changemaker movement in their schools. Amit Dodani @
  • Providing community-driven, experienced-based learning opportunities to low-income high school students to inspire and prepare them for college and career success. Imran Khan @
  • Helping schools understand the power of play to develop changemaker skills. Elizabeth Cushing and Janelle Averill @
  • Helping change leaders prepare to achieve their visions and solve their problems and pain points through design thinking and systems dynamics. David Castro @

Bonding and Moving Forward

The Forum included important space for play and open dialogue that allowed the change leaders to bond and to sort into teams committed to stay together for future work. The group aspires to work in four key clusters:

  • Supporting teachers as changemaker leaders, both in their classrooms and in the systems they inhabit.
  • Galvanizing education schools within higher education to conduct changemaker education research and to transform the academic frameworks currently used to develop teachers and curriculum.
  • Network weavers interested in exploring the K12 education system as a whole, and using a “team of teams” approach to surface and engage leverage points leading to system transformation.
  • Framework change leaders willing to dive into the language of changemaking in order to develop the most powerful narratives and mental models to engage key stakeholders, with a particular focus on policymakers, parents and youth capable of driving change from both the “top” and the grassroots. This group will also explore the impact of technology (specifically social media) on systems change initiatives.

This terrific work is already in action, with follow up calls, a podcast series, local engagement, a Changemaker School amplification fund, and webinars being planned in the next few months as part of an effort to expand the change leader circle and move to coordinated action plans.

Creating Beauty

Thomas Brodnitzki from Connecticut’s Capital Region Education Council framed the situation incisively. “The real question we have to ask is this: Do you really care about kids?” Emily Prestley, a Connecticut changemaker teacher went further. “If this is really the right thing to do, it’s not enough to make small changes. We have to be willing to demand a complete system change. We must have the courage to lead this ourselves.”

Meanwhile, passionate change leaders Perla Myers and Viviana Alexandrowicz from the University of San Diego promised to spur momentum at the Ed School level within changemaker campuses. Ed Schools can go beyond responding to system demands and play a leadership role. “I’m fired up,” said Viviana. “We are going to make this happen.”

Can I get an Amen?

Social entrepreneurs and innovators live by Margret Mead’s famous statement about the power of small groups of committed citizens to change the world. On the Ed Forum, Elaina Brachman from CREC took Mead’s fundamental idea a step further. Describing her commitment to continue scaling changemaker education throughout her region, she promised that her team would work to “create beauty.”

Creating Beauty by Tony Rammaricati

Creating Beauty by Tony Rammaricati

Changing systems is not for the fainthearted. It requires painstaking planning but also tolerance of ambiguity and a flexible willingness to disrupt systems and harness the energy that flows within the ensuing chaos. The path is not linear or predicable. To me, Elaina said something profoundly important about the spiritual energy that gives life to the tough work of social innovators and change leaders across America. Because we don’t drive change for its own sake. We drive it because we want to give beauty real life. Beauty expressed through justice and equality. And yes, let’s say it out loud: expressed through love. Stay tuned. The change isn’t just going to come. It’s already here, an unstoppable force for the common good.

Lately this world of ours has given us quite a lot to worry about. But on a Saturday in early March, 2017, the team left the Ashoka Start Empathy K 12 Changemaker Forum with smiles, full of optimism and commitment sufficient to match the warm Miami sunshine.

Ashoka Fellow David Castro is the President and CEO of I-LEAD, Inc. and the author of Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul

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