5 Things I Learned Visiting Cunningham Elementary School


Ever heard of organized chaos? To an outsider, the situation appears hectic, discombobulated. But in reality, the people on the inside of the situation know exactly what they’re doing, and they thrive.

Good morning. Your princes of thought. You queens of imagination. When I got to the Hive Society—the nickname for my friend Emily Smith’s 5th grade classroom at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Texas—she stood, bent over, on a table, cradling a tablet between two hanging pieces of multi-colored yarn. Students were in pairs, on computers, on tablets, talking, making art, writing with pencils… organized chaos.

Cunningham Elementary School is located in South Austin. It’s wonderfully diverse, and full of learners with a wealth of knowledge and skillsets that don’t often align with the type of knowledge found on a statewide assessment. The principal, Amy Lloyd, has taken special care to integrate opportunities that capitalize on their natural strengths and still teach the rigorous standards required by the state. The result? Cunningham Elementary School is an Ashoka Changemaker School (a classification featured in our latest forecast), acts as a micro-society, and skillfully integrates forward-thinking initiatives to ensure learning is relevant for everyone.

The energy there is palpable.

I spent the morning learning from Hive Society students about what they were working on, what was important to them, and why they chose to learn what they were learning. (You read that right, why they chose to learn what they were learning.) Emily has taken the Hive Society from a traditional 5th grade ELA/Social Studies classroom to a cohort of colleagues and leaders, where each student has learned, in their own way, to thrive.

Although I could write extensively on what the students in the Hive taught me in those brief few hours, I thought I’d attempt to whittle it down to 5 insights I had from visiting this classroom.

  1. If you allow students to think deeply, they will. The trick? Make learning relevant to their lives. Hive Society students learn in ways I’ve never quite seen before. When Emily first began teaching, she noticed that students weren’t engaging with content like she thought they should could. She could tell she wasn’t connecting with them using “traditional” texts and projects.Fast forward to the day I visited: the classroom abuzz with conversation and learning. They were creating stop motion animation videos based on a topic they learned about during the year. Complicated subjects…. Black Lives Matter Movement, Genocide, Immigration, Animal Rights. I naively asked Emily how she picked the topics they discussed. She said, “They tell me what they want to learn about.”Ten-and eleven-year-old learners are affected by complicated, relevant issues, but often we don’t let them engage with those issues in the classroom. The Hive Society proves that if students are given the opportunity to interact with relevant concepts they are curious about, they will engage in deep learning.
  2. Learning empathy is important for maturity and growth… and resiliency. Hive Society students have spent the year producing an in-house version of StoryCorps. Learners interview each other about something important in their life. Kim, the mayor of the school’s micro-society, recorded a story that highlighted what it’s like having a mother in jail. This is a young woman who was elected by her peers to lead the school… a leader in the school. And she shared an intimate part of her life with them.I listened to her interview with a couple of her fellow Hive Society members. When we finished listening, I asked the students what it meant to them to hear their friend share her story. Their response surprised me, though in hindsight it probably shouldn’t have. They both said, “It helped me understand her better. I could know that if she wasn’t happy one day, maybe I can watch out for her more. It helped me develop empathy for her.” It struck me that they appreciated and respected her for her vulnerability. They did not use it against her in any way.
  3. empathy Empathy creates change. I asked a couple other students what the most important thing was they learned in the 5th grade. “Empathy,” they both said.“What does empathy mean to you?” I asked…I wandered the halls a bit on the way back to the front office, and I found out exactly what empathy means to them. A poetry project prominently displayed in the hallways illustrated how each student defines, experiences, and feels empathy. (Actually, this wasn’t limited to the 5th grade. Every student in the school had some version of this project displayed.) I found examples of times built resiliency for students, when it helped them feel more connected and allowed for growth.One of my favorite poems actually came from Mayor Kim. She eloquently wrote how she was changed by empathy from her fellow classmates.
  4. The students in the Hive Society participate in hands-on learning opportunities that integrate technology into their work. Paper-and-pen folks need not be afraid of new types of learning. One of the arguments I hear against integrating technology in the classroom is that students will be found, heads down in a computer, wasting away. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there’s a similar underlying sentiment.) The students in the Hive Society participate in hands-on learning opportunities that integrate technology into their work. In the process of making their stop motion films, they were handwriting and hand-drawing storyboards and scripts after researching their topics online. They integrated hand-crafted figures with the technology of stop-motion, so they were engaged in using both sides of their brains.
  5. Inspiring leaders make all the difference in the world. Emily Smith* and Amy Lloyd are inspirational, forward thinkers. Emily has encouraged teachers worldwide with her honesty and vulnerability around race. She has truly personalized learning for her students, and the outcomes have been fantastic.Leadership isn’t always about taking control, but is often about putting systems in place that allow students, teachers, and staff to thrive. Amy’s vision for Cunningham has helped students develop as whole learners. Her emphasis on professional development has allowed teachers to build and brainstorm in innovative ways. Empathy and understanding of each others’ backgrounds, strengths, and areas for growth have helped students change the ways in which they interact with Cunningham, and it’s Amy’s leadership that has set the change in motion.

If it hasn’t been made clear to you yet, let me say in no uncertain terms, Cunningham Elementary School is an incredible example of the future of learning in action. Of course they have come up against barriers—policies and funding structures that inhibit particular types of innovation, an over-emphasis on testing as accountability— but they thrive through it, and they look for solutions to learning that suit their community of learners. In the policy arena, I hear leaders talk conceptually about the importance of the things Cunningham Elementary School is actually implementing, and I cannot say enough about how important it is to continue to encourage the type of education that nurtures the entire learner.


*Update: Emily has now moved into a role at the district-level as a technology integration coach. She will be training teachers in Austin ISD to better utilize technology in learning. What a wonderful step toward sustainable innovation!