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Stories of Transformation: Blue (School) Skies Ahead

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It was fifteen years ago, but I still remember the first time I saw Blue Man Group. Watching those bald blue aliens discover how to eat a Twinkie, or investigate the queasy vibrations of a giant Jello cake, or climb the walls of the theater to learn more about the people who were sitting there -- well, anyone who's seen the show knows there's nothing quite like it.

Since that time, Blue Man Group has become an international phenomenon, and an unlikely aesthetic portal through which to vicariously experience the wonders of inquiry, discovery and mischief. And now, those same core ingredients are at the heart of a remarkable new school in New York City -- a school I got to visit recently and see through the eyes of two of its founders, "Blue Man" Matt Goldman and his wife, Renee Rolleri.

"Blue Man Group started in the 1980s as this outrageous idea," Matt explained, shortly after we entered the school's kinetic entry hall on a sunny Friday morning and placed our shoes into a beehive of cardboard storage tubes lining the walls. "Our goal was to inspire creativity in our audiences and ourselves. We wanted to speak 'up' to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching 'in' to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than we typically find in the 'real world.' And we wanted to have fun doing it."

By the mid-2000s, their oddball idea now a full-fledged, flowering franchise, Matt, fellow founding Blue Men Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, and their wives formed a parent-run playgroup. Soon thereafter, they realized the same principles that formed the foundation for a successful theatrical performance could also be at the center of a successful school. "Better still," Renee added, "those principles might even help spur a re-imagining of education for a new era, and a restoration of some of what this recent era of test-driven accountability has cast aside."

The school's mission statement spells out the core ingredients such a re-imagining will require: "cultivating creative, joyful and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world." All of these characteristics are visibly on display for anyone who visits the school's building on Water Street, formerly the Seamen's Church Institute, near the southern tip of Manhattan. Student artwork is ubiquitous, from paintings to sculptures to support beams that have been turned into trees. Every floor has a common space that the children are responsible for decorating. A construction lab features a treasure chest of wooden blocks of all sizes, and everyone likes to spend time in the "wonder room" -- a black-lighted, fully padded playspace with a disco floor -- yes, a disco floor. Otherwise-drab hallways are brought to life with pastel colors, feathers, and fabric. And each classroom is anchored by adults who are deeply skilled in progressive teaching practices that date back more than one hundred years.

In that sense, aside from its distinctive decorative flourishes, much of what the Blue School does is not new, and does not claim to be. After all, John Dewey knew a thing or two about how people learn, and as Renee remarked, "Dewey's Lab School was both a destination for learning and a base camp for cultivating culture. That's what we want here as well."

However, two components of the Blue School's program are new -- groundbreaking, even -- and the rest of us would be wise to take notice.

The first is the school's educational framework, which takes its organizing principles directly from the personality profile of the Blue Man himself. "When we were designing the show," Matt explained, "we imagined the characters seeing and interacting with the world like children do. The Blue Man continually explores and researches the world around him. So we imagined him doing so via six different lenses:

  1. The Group Member -- the lens of collaboration, connection, and global citizenship
  2. The Scientist -- the lens of curiosity, critical thinking, experimentation and analysis
  3. The Hero -- the lens of perseverance, commitment and leadership
  4. The Trickster -- the lens of provocation, innovation, and play
  5. The Artist -- the lens of imagination, instinct and creative expression
  6. The Innocent -- the lens of emotional awareness and mindfulness

"These six lenses are mindsets or approaches children, teachers, and others in our community can assume to explore work, academic areas, an environment, and materials," Matt shared while we watched a cluster of four-year-olds make mud in their airy, light-filled classroom. "We want to teach our kids how to surf in all of those different energies. And we want to help them develop critical life skills and practices along the way."

An educational framework organized around archetypal personalities, each of which is mapped to different core attributes that combine to make up a creative, joyful and compassionate person? I have never seen another school organized in such a way, and the elegance of the design extends to which lenses are likely to be most compatible with which components of the curriculum (which, befitting a progressive school, is negotiated between children and adults, and which therefore largely unfolds in real time based on expressed student interests). This is what makes Renee proudest. "We're still learning, but so far we've been able to create a healthy, warm, safe, nurturing environment where community is paramount and where children's interactions between classes are just as important as what happens during classes. It's the kind of educational program I wish I'd had for myself and which we all dreamed we'd have for our children -- a place where people feel like there is genuinely no better place to learn and to grow."

What makes the Blue School's framework even more exciting is its commitment to explicitly link everything it does to the latest research about how the brain works, and about how people learn. As Renee explained, "we know there is a broad range of expectations within each age group and that the rate of development varies greatly between children. This is why we believe age doesn't matter nearly as much as sequence. There are clear developmental progressions that children experience -- physically, cognitively, emotionally, and linguistically -- and no one experiences any of them at quite the same pace. Why, then, do we continue to educate children in a linear, grade-by-grade process, when the research clearly tells us that this is not how people learn?"

Lindsey Russo, the school's director of curriculum documentation and research, agrees. "Schools were not applying this new neurological science out there to how we teach children," she said in a recent article profiling the school. "Our aim is to take those research tools and adapt them to what we do in the school."

Consequently, children at the Blue School learn directly about the different regions of their brains, and what thoughts and behaviors they control. Adults speak daily about the importance of meta-cognition and helping children develop "supported autonomy." And school leaders seek advice and feedback from leading scholars like UCLA neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel and NeuroLeadership Institute co-founder David Rock.

"Teaching and learning are reciprocal processes that depend upon and affect one another," Renee said as the school day was ending and a friendly phalanx of strollers and parents was slowly surrounding us. "We just hope our school can be one of the places to help us understand, as a country, how to support those processes in ways that help as many people as possible unleash their wildest, most beautiful selves on the world."