On Wednesday, I had the privilege of visiting Anastasis Academy in Centennial, CO, about a half hour outside of Denver. I’ve known two members of their team, co-founder Kelly Tenkely and teacher Michelle Baldwin, for several years. Being in town this week for the NAGC Conference, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see first-hand what is happening at Anastasis.

Anastasis takes a non-traditional approach to education which borrows from research and best practices in schools and programs around the world. They have adapted and remixed elements of the Finnish public education system, International Baccalaureate, Reggio Emilia, and Charlotte Mason’s work. Learning experiences are highly individualized and project-based, they stress formative and performance assessments, and technology is deeply embedded into what they do every day.

I must note that the day I was there was not an ordinary day in the school. It was the last day before their Thanksgiving break, and the schedule was disrupted by preparations for “Meeting of the Minds” (their version of parent conferences) and a service project. Nevertheless, I was able to get a good feel for the culture and environment. I also spoke with most of the teachers and several of the students.

Four things stood out to me during the time I was there:

Students own the school

In each classroom I visited, it was clear that the students felt at home, and that they had taken ownership of the space and their learning. I have been in too many schools and classrooms where the students are clearly guests, albeit welcome ones, in someone else’s domain. At Anastasis, students always have choices and options. When I spoke with the kids, the two most common words they mentioned were “freedom” and “stress,” the latter in the context that they did not feel it here, unlike their former schools. Every student I spoke with knew what they were learning and why, and it was obvious that it wasn’t because they were coached on what to say to an outside visitor. Even more, when I asked about their work, whether it was a second and third grade exploration of Fibonacci numbers in teacher Nancy Babbitt’s class (pictured above), or simply how they were organizing their Evernote portfolios (see left), students were enthusiastic and eager to share their understanding of the project.

Space matters

Classrooms at Anastasis are designed around the learner. There are no student desks. Instead, students work however they are comfortable: at tables, on couches, or in beanbag chairs. Teachers have stocked the rooms with resources and materials for students to use as they see fit. Teaching is a secondary consideration here; in fact, the rooms have no teacher desks, and if there is a “front” to the classroom, it is not the focal point.

Surprisingly, Anastasis is able to do this in space that is shared with a church. On Wednesday nights and weekends, the classrooms are used for church classes. Despite this, Anastasis has worked out an arrangement with the church that allows them to personalize the space. In Babbit’s class, for example, after learning about Rwanda, the students decided to paint a mural of the African country on the wall, creating an opportunity for further research.

Staffing matters

Every teacher in this school is passionate about learning, committed to knowing their students as individuals, and embodies the school’s mission to “apprentice children in the art of learning through inquiry, creativity, critical thinking, discernment and wisdom.” Though the culture and the environment are all about the child, this could not work without a staff completely embracing the school’s values and philosophy. This is not to say, of course, that the seven teachers are all identical. Far from it. Each has infused his or her own style and personality into the equation.

Two places this plays out are in the Crave classes and Spark classes. I did not have the opportunity to observe these directly, but each Wednesday afternoon, the teachers take an hour each to teach focused, topical or interest-based classes. Crave classes are designed by each individual teacher around something they want to share, and then students self-select across grade levels. Spark classes are taught on a rotating schedule and are built around semi-traditional specials like art, music, and phys ed; though it is worth noting that the school’s overall curriculum is highly interdisciplinary, and subjects are not siloed as they typically are in most schools.

Everything is focused on growth

There are no grades, homework, or standardized tests at Anastasis Academy. Students track and monitor their learning through a portfolio which they maintain in Evernote. They have become fluent at recording all of their work in Evernote, including anything done on paper, which they simply enter by taking a photograph on the spot with their iPads. Each student also maintains a log of their work called a “Trace,” which serves as an index, tracking tool, and parent communication device. Teachers post a list of current projects and assignments in the room. Each student I spoke with knew exactly where they were, not only on the daily list, but also in the bigger context of the “block” (similar to a marking period).

Inquiry is evident everywhere. Every project and task I observed originated with some form of inquiry question, whether pre-planned by the teacher or inspired by the students. Students explore and create continually. In Michelle Baldwin’s class of third and fourth graders, for example, after hearing a visiting soldier talk about his experiences in the military, students were researching and analyzing songs associated  with various wars, thinking about the perspective and purpose of the song in the context of the culture at the time.

Every class I visited had a similar atmosphere of depth and engagement. The climate is casual but focused, and relationships among the students and staff are comfortable and friendly. Although Anastasis is a small, private school, I would love to see how their ideas could scale to a larger public school. Several questions come to mind:

  • Can this be done in a school of 700 instead of 70? (Tenkely believes scaling up to 150-200 is more feasible; beyond that the close relationships and community that are key to the Academy’s success would begin to suffer.)
  • What hurdles and speed bumps would we have to anticipate and steer around?
  • Are the methods and philosophy dependent on the excellent resources available to Anastasis, or could this kind of school operate with less supportive parents and community and with more restrictive budgets and facilities?