My Next Project

I’ve figured out what I’m doing next. There’s a story about how I figured this out, but I’ll save that for the end of this.

I’m going to become the CEO of The Wildflower Foundation. Wildflower schools are teacher-led, innovative Montessori micro-schools that support children, parents and teachers on their unfolding journeys to fulfilling their potential.

Wildflower schools offer a new approach to education, rooted in an entirely different set of assumptions than the ones that shape traditional schools. You can read more about Wildflower schools and The Wildflower Foundation on our website at wildflowerschools.org but here are some highlights:

  1. Wildflower schools are authentic Montessori programs, based on the idea that children are naturally good, peaceful, curious and motivated to learn. Using Montessori methods, we help children follow their interests as they build independence, critical thinking and collaboration skills, and develop a passion for learning. Research shows Montessori methods helps students of all backgrounds develop academically, socially and emotionally.
  2. Wildflower schools are teacher-led one-room schoolhouses. Each school serves 20-30 students within a 3-year age range – 0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12 years old, junior high and high school. Each school is led by two classroom teachers who also serve as the heads of school. Mirroring the way we think about children, we believe that teachers are intrinsically motivated to do what’s right for students, and we don’t want bureaucracy to get in their way.
  3. Wildflower schools can be private schools, public charter schools and in-district public schools. We are committed to serving a socioeconomically and racially diverse group of families and students in all settings.
  4. Wildflower schools are independent – legally and practically – and get support without control from other Wildflower schools/leaders and The Wildflower Foundation.
  5. Wildflower schools are designed to spread. Our approach is entirely open-source, and we welcome inquiries from teachers interested in learning more about starting a Wildflower school. Teachers can be Montessori-trained or interested in becoming so. We provide training and financial support to help excellent teachers get their own schools up and running in as little as one year.
  6. Wildflower schools are in regular shop-fronts on walkable streets, integrated into the community in which they sit, not set apart in institutional settings. Because they are one-room schools, there is no shortage of potential locations for them.
  7. Wildflower schools blur the lines between home and school, offering significant educational opportunities to parents and meaningful roles for parents at school. Wildflower schools work to create a cohesive and inclusive school community of teachers, children and families.
  8. Wildflower schools are innovative lab schools that use data to learn what works and evolve their approaches over time. This is supported by cutting edge technology – developed in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab’s Social Computing Center – that will allow teachers to keep track of what kids know and need to learn from their interactions with the materials in the Montessori environment – with minimal testing.
  9. Wildflower schools are beautiful, natural places. The interior design connects children to the natural world and helps them remain calm and focused, while our practice and teaching of mindfulness and the presence of a local artist-in-residence in each school inspires children to explore what is inside of them and learn to express themselves peacefully as part of a community.
  10. Building off the same ethos that shapes our schools, The Wildflower Foundation consists of self-managed, non-hierarchical teams focused on supporting our school leaders. We do not have job titles, rigidly defined roles, departmental budgets, management targets or incentives. We operate with extreme levels of freedom and responsibility. We are guided by shared purpose and shared values, and trust that the exceptional people that join our team will figure out the right thing to do in every situation, supported by our processes for defining roles and responsibilities, seeking advice and resolving conflicts.

Two years after the first school launched, there are now ten schools operating in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts and in Puerto Rico, with two more set to open this fall, and many others in earlier stages of development. We currently receive 5 calls each week from teachers and parents seeking to open additional Wildflower schools. We are exploring new sites in Denver, Minneapolis, New Jersey, New York, Chicago and the Bay Area.

The same things that motivate us to create child-centered, intentionally diverse, human-scale, community-embedded schools for some children (including our own) lead us to want such schools for all children, and so we expect to support the creation of many such schools.

The Wildflower Foundation will be based in Minneapolis, MN.

***

So, how did I end up here?

When I decided to leave Teach For America last fall, my plan was to take some time to decompress and discern where the universe was calling me next. Sitting still has never been my strong suit, so I ended up spending a lot of my time volunteering at my kids’ school (a public charter Montessori school in North Minneapolis serving an intentionally diverse community of students) helping it chart the course for the next 5 years. I was also exploring the possibility of launching an educational technology startup and listening to many ideas from friends and colleagues about things I might do. (I also got a ton of home improvement projects done, planned a month-long tour of the national parks for my family that starts in a couple weeks, ate dinner with my family almost every night, and spent as much time as I possibly could with my wonderful wife, but all that’s fodder for another post.)

As I explored, my focus narrowed toward educational technology, and in particular toward thinking about ways that student-facing learning software might incorporate the things we know about the science of learning. Some of those things – that kids learn best when they choose what they work on and follow their interests, focus on concrete ideas before abstract ones, and experience the things they want to learn about instead of listening to people talk about them – are very hard to replicate through software for most subjects. Ultimately, I concluded that the science of learning might be pointing us in a new direction for educational technology – as a tool for observing students, not teaching them.

For a while, I kept my work with my children’s school and my career explorations on separate tracks, but fate intervened when I discovered Wildflower. I was introduced to Sep Kamvar, a professor at the MIT Media Lab and the creator of the Wildflower model. I learned that Sep and his team were creating great Montessori schools and developing educational technology to support Montessori observation protocols at the same time, and they were at the critical moment of contemplating how to support the growing number of Wildflower schools in a more systematic way. After some reflection, I realized I could work on both topics too, and over the next few weeks, as I got to know the teacher-leaders at Wildflower schools, and the brilliant engineers and designers and coaches supporting them, everything became clear. I’m now working with them to create a newly-independent Wildflower Foundation that will carry this work forward.

In the near-term, there is a lot we can do to support our schools more effectively and support teachers interested in creating new schools, even as we refine our model. Over time, there’s a more profound opportunity – to change our understanding of what we mean by learning and schools, to change the ways schools intersect with society, and ultimately to change society itself. That might take 25 years, or it might take 100. That’s okay. We expect to be doing this for a long time.

***

We’re looking to hire quite a few people – engineers, entrepreneurial Montessorians with interest in starting schools or launching programs (in Massachusetts, Denver, Minneapolis, or anywhere else), social entrepreneurs to lead our exploration of and coordinate our startup in new cities, development and communications professionals, operations and functional leaders – who share our values and core purpose, and who are excited about applying their skills to the challenge of building a new type of organization and school model that can grow rapidly and impact education on a national and global scale.

If you are interesting in joining our team, please send a letter to castleoneill@gmail.com letting us know what appeals to you about our work and what areas you think you can contribute to. Please include a summary of your past professional experiences such as a résumé.

***

Would you like us to keep you informed about our progress? Please give us your email address here.

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My Next Project

7 thoughts on “My Next Project

  1. Matt, I am thrilled to read about your good news and the seeds you will be planting and growing with others through Wildflower Foundation’s work. I’ll be following along closely to learn alongside your community of teachers, families and schools. This is very exciting! -Jess Berg Elders

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  2. Matt,

    You are an inspiration in who you are and how you live your life.
    I am honored to be a friend.
    We are in different chapters of our lives which prevents us from seeing a lot of one another, but watching your little family grow and blossom makes me happy.

    From your little cheerleader in Lakeville,
    Cindy

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  3. Mary Vascellaro says:

    Congratulations, Matt. This sounds wonderful. I have been watching the ALT school from a distance and wonder how similar Wildflower is to that model.

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    1. Hi Mary!

      There are some similarities – probably the biggest is that we’ve both got really big ideas and we’re both interested in technology. But there are mostly differences: our schools are really small (most of theirs are the usual grade spans of K-5 or K-8), AltSchool has more of a traditional pedagogy (vs. Montessori), they use technology in ways that the kids see (whereas we keep it behind the scenes), they aren’t as focused on socioeconomic diversity and aren’t as focused on creating public schools…I’m not an expert on them, of course, but it seems that other than being new and different, we’re mostly going at this in a different way.

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  4. Earl Simms says:

    Matt:

    I am the St Louis Director for the University of Missouri’s charter schools office. We sponsor schools in both St Louis and Kansas City. I would love to talk to you regarding this idea. please feel free to reach out to me at simmsec@missouri.edu

    Like

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