Helen’s Reflections

I find the holiday season a mix of joy and nostalgia, but this one is particularly poignant as I contemplate my upcoming retirement as UP for Learning’s founder and Executive Director. I am flooded with memories of our first Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together 3-day retreat at Lyndon State College twelve years ago. A roughly sketched model of youth-adult partnership in school transformation came to life due to the vision, hard work, and patience of our first four schools. Two memories, in particular, come to the fore.  The first was the night adventure challenge in which each youth-adult team had to traverse a pond in a canoe. This might seem simple until one considers that the adults were blindfolded and could talk, while the youth team members were silenced but remained sighted. And by the way….there were no paddles provided.  

 

Retreat adventures are designed to provide metaphors for participants’ “real life” work together – and the metaphors were in abundance!  The group first needed to join together, rallying as they began to grasp the nature of the challenge and ensuring everyone was “in.” Adults tied on their blindfolds and quickly realized how vulnerable they were, trusting their lives (or at least their dryness) into the hands of the youth team members. At the same time, the students recognized the responsibility they were shouldering as the sighted members of the team. It was moving to witness them begin to reassure the adults that they were safe. A creative communication system was established, with a simple non-verbal yes-no tapping code to answer adult questions. Hands became paddles.  They did not traverse the pond in a straight line, but all arrived at the opposite shore and remained dry.

 

That night, and over the intervening years, I have witnessed the deep bonds that have developed between youth and adult UP for Learning team members, as they pursue their own adventures in school redesign.  These teams are challenged by limited resources, most commonly a dearth of shared time. Similarly, as change agents, they have no clear instructions on how to tackle a task they have chosen. Nor do they yet fully understand how to be effective partners in the work at hand, breaking with traditional youth-adult power-based norms.  In each instance, the teams seek buy-in from the wider school population, both faculty and the student body. They set a course, and choose new tacks when its efforts are buffered by unexpected forces. The wisdom, creativity, and perseverance that results from the youth-adult collaboration can be astounding. Our teams have not always “remained dry” or followed a straight line because change is difficult. However, optimism, ingenuity, and commitment have generally prevailed – with young people and their adult partners surmounting challenges time and time again. 

The second memory is of the youth-adult workgroup that created the first organizational logo for Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (before we rebranded and became Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning).  The participants would not let anyone see the logo until it was revealed on the last day, during the closing session, complete with an accompanying rap song! Their hot air balloon metaphor was equally as powerful as the night adventure, and the themes have endured throughout our 12-year history:  

  • We can go anywhere in our hot air balloon, as we transform our schools – the sky is the limit. “Look Up.”
  • “Speak Out” – ALL voices are important. It takes the whole community to “grow” our schools and ensure equity.
  • The sun seeds hopefulness and illuminates new potential horizons.
  • The flame is the infinity symbol, signifying the goal of fostering infinite life-long learning.
  • The mountains represent obstacles in our way, but we can sail over them if we do this work together.
  • We will increase engagement in learning and voice in decision-making by increasing rigor, relevance, relationships and shared responsibility at our schools.

The next year during the orientation, as I walked into our building, I looked up and saw a balloon, it’s coloring identical to the YATST logo, drifting nearby.  I could not have foreseen the twelve-year journey ahead, but I embraced the signal that we were on the right path – the logo had life.

I am grateful for so many gifts:  

  • The inspiring adults who have worked with youth to realize this vision, consistently going above and beyond in their commitment to UP,
  • The youth who have worked with UP faculty and on school-based teams as full partners with adults, demonstrating remarkable vision, courage, and conviction, 
  • the YATST/UP faculty, who bring boundless passion and creativity to their work,  
  • a Board of Directors that has believed in and supported this organization at every turn, 
  • colleagues and funders, including the members of the Executive Director Advisory Board. I have benefited from their vast experience, generosity, and shared belief in our mission.

Finally, I am grateful to be handing UP for Learning to Lindsey Halman as the new Executive Director. Her deep commitment to school redesign, coupled with her skills as a leader and teacher, will undoubtedly expand UP’s reach and impact. 

I close with the following quote by Margaret Wheatley.  It is one of my favorites and central to many UP gatherings:  “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”  I have been blessed to have been part of an ever-growing and vital UP community, comprised of individuals who care deeply about making the world a better place for each and every child…and are making it happen.

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