Other Writings

TeachingWithTheHeartTeaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach

Kirsten Olson, Contributor

In Teaching with Heart, a diverse group of ninety teachers describe the complex of emotions and experiences of the teaching life – joy, outrage, heartbreak, hope, commitment and dedication. Each heartfelt commentary is paired with a cherished poem selected by the teacher. The contributors represent a broad array of educators: K-12 teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, as well as many non-traditional teachers. They range from first year teachers to mid-career veterans to those who have retired after decades in the classroom.  They come from inner-city, suburban, charter and private schools.

Information Abundance Is The Enemy of Control

Article. Education Revolution, Summer 2010

The revolution is here. Bring on the revolution!

In what may be one of the most comprehensive, balanced, clear-eyed descriptions of the educational revolution we are currently slashing through, Allan Collins’ and Richard Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Teachers College Press 2009), based on the authors’ history of education reform course they taught together at Northwestern, describes better than almost any book I’ve read what the new world of education–as opposed to schoolingmay look like in the future. Read More »

Real Education Is Human

Blog Post, Cooperative Catalyst, November 1, 2011

Photo by taylorgreene flickr

At an extraordinary and unusual school I visited recently, I observed a seven-year-old girl come before the school’s judicial council. The day before she had violated a cardinal rule of the school. She had failed to look after her own safety. She and four of her friends had ventured to a pond dock on the school grounds, where they saw a water snake. Intrigued, they wanted to catch it. Read More »

 I Learned To Believe In Me

Article, Phi Delta Kappan, September 2011

The experiences of great learners and resilient learners can teach individuals how to improve their own learning and show schools how to support learners of all kinds. Read More »

 Rethinking Every Assumption

Anywhere Anytime Learning Newsletter, September 2011

If you wanted to rethink every assumption about conventional high school—with multi-media technology at the center, combined with an intense conviction about adolescents ‘ desire to do meaningful and important work—what would it look like? “This is the NYC iSchool, and we’re working on something completely new,” says Executive Director Alisa Berger. Read More »

Tour of Our Lives

Blog Post, Cooperative Catalyst, April 11, 2011

Schools that work well put love at the center. Reflections on the Institute for Democratic Education’s (IDEA) first ever School Innovation Tour.  Our key learnings posted… Read More »

Paradoxes of School Transformation

Blog Post, Cooperative Catalyst, August 10, 2011

Paradoxes of Our Work. The ability to hold two conflicting truths simultaneously isn’t easy.  And that’s exactly what our work in education calls us to do at this moment. Read More »

If You Were A Learning Entrepreneur

Blog Post, Cooperative Catalyst March 4, 2011

If would consider school part of your “balanced portfolio” of learning experiences, but one and only one venue for learning some kinds of things. Read More »

Principals Let Their Hair Down: “I Don’t Know How To Do That.”

Article, Education Week, July 14, 2010

Recently I observed a group of high-powered principals vigorously engaged in a serious, district-wide improvement plan.

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This is a chapter from the forthcoming book called BURNED IN: REFLECTIONS ON MAINTAINING THE FIRE TO TEACH, edited by Jennifer and Luke Reynolds. (Book due out Spring 2011.)

The Reynolds are also editors of the recent book Dedicated to the People of Darfur, from Rutgers University Press.

Kirsten Olson’s contribution to BURNED IN is below.

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 Creating Unwounding Schools

Following up on an interview about wounded learners (Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association, November 2009), in this article Kirsten Olson offers 10 practices that help create nurturing, challenging, “healing” schools for all learners. She says these practices are key to boosting achievement in underperforming schools and addressing learning disengagement. School wounding is not just wasteful, and a cultural and social wrong-it’s bad practice.


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Book Review: The International Journal of Illich Studies

“When I first assign Grace Llewllyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How To Quit School and Get A Real Life and Education, to my undergraduates in education, they are often stunned, shocked, and repelled by Llewellyn’s message. Although most have just completed American high school, an experience they found intellectually draining, emotionally flattening, and at least a year and a half too long, they write in their first autobiographical essays, “Never in my entire life read have I read a book that said education could be bad for you.” In class they shake their heads, “Some kids might learn without school, but this is definitely not for everybody.”

Kirsten Olson reviews  the alternative schooling reader, Everywhere All the Time http://www.akpress.org/2008/items/everywhereallthetimeakpress (edited by Matt Hern) for The International Journal of Illich Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1


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Book Chapter: My Work Now

“My Work Now,” in Turning Points: 27 Visionaries In Education Tell Their Own Stories, edited by Jerry Mintz and Carlo Ricci, Albany, New York: Alternative Education Resource Organization, 2010

http://www.educationrevolution.org/turningpoints.html (TO ORDER)

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Help Wanted: Leader to Promote a Culture of Learning

If you were asked about the learning culture of your school, how would you respond to the following questions:

Is it a place that welcomes innovation and contributions about teaching and learning from everyone in the building?

Teacher Magazine, July 1, 2009


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School Woundedness, Cultural Myths of Schooling and the Healing Process

Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Meeting, April 15, 2009, San Diego, California

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Self-Education: Learning From the Kinsmen of the Shelf

Article, Education Week, November 25, 1998

When I look back over my primary and secondary education, which by the standards of schools 25 years ago was neither especially bad nor particularly good, I recall that by the 3rd or 4th grade it was clear to me that the really vital, onrushing streams of my intellectual life would flow outside the confines of Greenwood Elementary School. Read More »

Hyperventilating: The Concerted Cultivation of the Teenager

This article won the John Muir Award for Editorial Excellence from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors in September 2008.

“Recently, I went back to my alma mater. I have not been an attentive alum, since the last twenty or thirty years have been busy, and in truth I’ve always been a little disdainful of those who had a lot of time to devote to their colleges early on in life. I hadn’t returned to campus since my own graduation. I went back with my four children, some of whom may apply to this college. We returned because are now officially playing the (Try To) Get Into College game…”

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Face Fear. Reinvent Career.

Hard times mean reinvention. But reinvention means facing fear…


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New Learners for the New Economy

Twelve critical “habitudes” of learners in the new economy.


Featured on: SOCIAL MEDIA IN LEARNING July 20, 2009


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Teacher’s Work: Addicted to Busyness

PUBLISHED IN EDUCATION WEEK February 26, 2009. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/02/26/23olson.h28.html

During  a school visit I am conferring with a first-year principal. This individual is a dedicated, deeply thoughtful school leader committed to improving the conditions of teaching and learning in her building, and to intensifying professionalism among her teachers. In this meeting, we have set aside time to talk about her—about her new role as a school leader and the job’s many structural and interpersonal challenges.

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A Learning Community Blossoms

What happens when students and teachers share decision-making opportunities? At this small Boston high school, democratic values thrive.

Article appears in Educational Leadership, May 2009.

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Bright Like Me?

In an affluent, well-educated, profoundly aspiring suburb of a major American city, teachers meet to select children from their school for a districtwide gifted program. Sorting “exemplary” students from the merely “commendable”—the former designated by blue folders, the latter by mere manila—in such a setting is no easy task.

Originally published in Teacher Magazine February 1, 2000 and reprinted in Rethinking Schools Spring 2001.

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What Can Parents Do To Prevent Students From Dropping Out?

Article prepared for Educate To Graduate! Summit  (Pressley Ridge, WV April 2, 2009)

Staying close to your child, creating a supportive  academic environment, and expecting your child to do well are some of the keys to high school completion.

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The Wounded Student

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Educational Leadership.

Schools sometimes undermine students’ confidence in their ability to learn.

Marie, an ordinarily outgoing 8th grader, shuts down in math class. She dislikes word problems and avoids games like Tic Tac Toe Squares, which involves finding the square root of numbers less than 1,000. Once an engaged math student, Marie now sits silently in large-group math instruction, hoping not to be noticed.

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Being Kind and Enjoying the Process

This year I published my first book that required me to go out on “tour” (nothing fancy, I assure you), and talk to as many folks as I possibly could about its contents, and the people whose lives had touched mine in the process of writing it. This meant two to three talks a week, to anyone who would have me, and being very “outreaching” to anyone who showed interest in any aspect of my work.

Featured on Joyful Jubilant Learning June 24, 2009. http://joyfuljubilantlearning.com/2009/06/being-kind-and-enjoying-the-process/

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What I Learned From My Bulldog

I have never yet been called on to write about the habits of my beautiful (in the eye of the beholder) dog Thelonius Monk, our English bulldog of seven years. But Monk’s habits hold much ancient wisdom, especially for those of us who have an overactive habit of self-critique.

Monk is actually a deep Buddhist scholar, although of a natural,non-seminary kind.

Featured on Joyful Jubilant Learning May 15, 2009. http://joyfuljubilantlearning.com/2009/05/the-habits-of-mumpy/

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Spring In All Its Ambivalence

April has always been a watery month—one of hormonal challenge.

Liminal.  One feels the primordial throw down, the challenge:  recreate the species, fall in love, re-fall in love, hug and kiss the kids (with abandon)–but also vulnerable, unformed.

Featured on Joyful, Jubilant Learning April 24, 2009http://joyfuljubilantlearning.com/2009/04/it-sings-with-sensitivity/

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Food For Thought

A few days ago, my son’s snake ate a mouse. The mouse was alive.

Originally published in Teacher Magazine August 1, 2000

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Extraordinary Knowing

It begins with a harp.

A beautiful, magical harp belonging to the author’s daughter has been stolen after a performance. Because of the instrument’s great value and meaning, the author is desperate to get it back.

Featured on Joyful Jubilant Learning March 6, 2009 http://joyfuljubilantlearning.com/2009/03/extraordinary-knowing-science-skepticism-and-the-inexplicable-powers-of-the-human-mind/

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The Eros of Learning

Originally published in Education Week, February 23, 2006.

Deeply engaged learning has an erotic quality-a kind of energizing, transforming intensity that is unforgettable to those who have experienced it. During intensely interesting periods of learning, there is flow: work is performed effortlessly and emotional entanglements fade into the background. Learning becomes so gratifying that we keep at it, even if no one is looking, noticing, grading, or giving a performance appraisal.

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Walking Around Money

My uncle, who came out in a pre-Stonewall era and struggled a lot with acceptance of his sexual identity in his life, has a very kind heart for those less fortunate—those who are lost, who are in transition, who are finding their way.

Here’s something he taught me.

Featured on Joyful Jubilant Learning November 13, 2008.


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What I’ve Learned From the Men In My Life

I have three sons, have had three husbands (two former-and now the love of my life), a father, and innumerable male bosses and coworkers. In short, I’ve learned a lot from men. Here are some of the biggies…

Featured on Joyful Jubilant Learning June 17, 2008

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The Shadow Side of Schooling: What Jungian Psychology Can Tell Us About Bullying

Originally Published: April 21, 2008 – Education Week

On March 24 of this year, The New York Times ran a front-page article on a boy from Fayetteville, Ark., who has, since the age of 12, been the repeated victim of physical and emotional attack by his peers at school. The young man, Billy, tall and lanky, became the target of bullies when he was beaten up in a middle school bathroom for telling his mom he had received a prank call. That attack was followed by another beating on the school bus, and another in woodshop in which, his mother says, “he kept spitting blood out.”

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The Juggler

Misstropolis.com, April 27, 2007

Predawn, pre-caffeinated I am in the kitchen washing a pan covered with chicken fat someone left in the sink from the night before. My hair is unbrushed, my hands are sheathed in elbow-length orange rubber gloves, and underneath my bathrobe I am wearing old gym shorts and a t-shirt that belonged to a former babysitter. I sometimes wonder what my doctorate was for. Read More »

The Wounds of Schooling

Education Week, November 7, 2006

Claire, an exceptionally talented and thoughtful sophomore in one of my classes at Wheaton College, speaks of her first experiences of wounding in school. “I remember the first time that grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing. Maybe it was in 3rd grade. Suddenly all the joy was taken away. I was writing for a grade-I was no longer exploring for me. I want to get that back. Will I ever get that back?”

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Giving Up Certainty

You don’t have to have been in years of therapy to know that human motivation is complex. But it helps.

I grew up with a mother whose leading identity was that she was Pisceanly perceptive about  human motivation—the why of other people’s irrational, self-destructive, often titillatingly revealing actions.

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“You Failed The Behavior Chart!”

Grace hates putting on her socks. A lively, inquisitive four year old, when Grace began going to daycare/preschool at age two, Grace’s mother wondered why putting on socks, making transitions from indoors to outdoors, or petting the neighbor’s dog was always, “a bit of an issue, sometimes a real struggle.”

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What Wholly Kisses You?

Joyful Jubilant Learning, July 27, 2009

Social media tools provide literal evidence of the interconnectivity of us all–proof of the notion that the idea of individual self is a fragile, culturally-constructed illusion (and often a punishing one). The email from the new friend in Sweden, or Brazil; the blogger in Australia; the columnist in New York City; the student in Ghana. They become a part of the emotional and spiritual landscape. Fundamentally, we are all connected. Self is an illusion.

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Reflections on Columbine: A Metaphor For Parents

Education Week, May 12, 1999

For those of us actually engaged in, or about to be engaged in, the business of raising teenagers, last month’s events in Jefferson County, Colo., are more than just a terrifying reminder of the lack of social supports, community safety nets, and thoughtful adult interventions in the lives of many adolescents today. The events are a message about how isolated, psychologically imperiled, and alone many teenagers—those even from stable, involved families—can feel in a culture that presents few alternative models for success and shockingly harsh consequences for lack of conventional achievement.

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Same Journey, Different Seat

Joyful Jubliant Learning, August 24, 2009

Mom gives over control of the car, and drinks a glass of wine in the back seat.  More »

3 Problems With School

District Administrator, Spring 2008

For the last decade I have been analyzing people’s learning histories, asking them to recount their earliest memories of school and to describe the relationship between intense, pleasurable learning and schooling. For many, the connection between school and learning is a negative one—or there is no connection at all. More »

What Wholly Kisses You?

Like the Buddhist I am increasingly becoming, social media tools provide literal evidence of the interconnectivity of us all-proof of the notion that the idea of the individual self is a fragile, culturally-constructed illusion. (And often a punishing one.) The message from a new friend in Brazil; the blogger in Australia; the columnist in New York City; the student in Ghana. They become a part of the emotional and spiritual landscape. Fundamentally, we are all connected. Self is an illusion. More »