The Transformation of the Elizabeth Forward School District

The transformation marking Elizabeth-Forward High School’s recent renovation warrants more than literary description and admiration, it might justify a school name change to “FORWARD Elizabeth!”

[dropcap style=”plain”]I[/dropcap]ndeed, my recent visit to the renovated Elizabeth Forward High School harkened back to my own experience when my colleague, the late Randy Pausch, and I co-founded the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center in 1998.

Randy and I were smart enough not to accept credit as the “visionaries” many called us, but acknowledged that we were in truth “reactionaries.” We were “reacting” to what had become obvious to both of us: the pervasiveness of transformative technology was creating a generation of young people possessing perspective and expectations rendering them practically a new species.

Let me explain. I remark often that while my parents enjoyed radio as youngsters and I grew up with television (essentially radio with pictures), it was still in the service of linear storytelling and thinking. It was linear because the content was rendered and perceived in a prescribed manner – much like society. All of that changed when technology-facilitated interactivity became the norm of communication, entertainment, and education.

[blockquote]Technology altered the equation of linearity by allowing for ubiquitous interactivity.[/blockquote] I call it endowing humankind with Deistic capabilities: for instance, omnipresence (connectivity anytime and anywhere); omniscience (just ask Wikipedia or Google it!); and even at times omnipotence (feeling immensely powerful due to humankind’s technological advancement and heightened knowledge acquisition).

Having come of intellectual age in the midst of the nature/nurture debate, it seemed obvious to Randy and me that if teachers had one true means of making an impact on students it would be through nurturing.

I come from theatre. My entire life has been lived in a fantasyland of imaginary characters, fanciful, poignant and amazing stories, and the physical act of transformation: make-up, costumes, altering my manner of speech, gesture, attitude, and comportment. To put it bluntly: I never grew up. I continued the fantastical imaginings and game playing of my childhood. And, I not only loved it; I felt privileged and fortunate beyond words to have such freedom.

Imagine then the kinship I felt when I first walked into Randy Pausch’s Stage Three Laboratory in the School of Computer Science and found it adorned floor to ceiling with stuffed animals, toys, games, and incandescent lighting. I felt I had happened upon a fellow Thespian, albeit one with a Ph.D. in Computer Science!

[divider style=”thin”][dropcap style=”plain”]A[/dropcap]ll of these memories flooded back to me when I visited Elizabeth Forward to see its transformation. Though I had never been there before, Superintendent Dr. Bart Rocco and Assistance Superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin had flooded me via email with photos of the former traditional space. Both Todd and Bart claimed a visit to the CMU Entertainment Technology Center as the impetus for Elizabeth Forward’s transformation. It was enough to make me blush.

It wasn’t surprising to me that the desire to create an environment perceived as nurturing by high schoolers would resemble the ETC. For when Randy and I created the ETC, the mean age for technologically adept, digitally savvy young people mirrored graduate school.

Randy and I knew it was only a matter of time before the proliferation of technology and the ubiquity of interactivity would skew the mean age younger. That is why we now recognize the newest demographic moniker of “digital natives.”

[blockquote]Elementary school children will soon possess the technical adeptness and multi-sensorial learning acumen we know attribute to high schoolers.  Elementary school transformation need be next.[/blockquote]

So, what is this transformation? A visually appealing environment, one making use of color, for color is the composition of white light. It is light’s “diversity.” This multitude of color will resonate differently with each individual.

The school environment exudes democracy. It is a demographic transformation in that strict hierarchy is sublimated to commonwealth. The key is to get students teaching each other. Elizabeth-Forward’s open, inviting spaces encourage participation and assistance. It possesses technology resources equal to what many students find at home, as well as the latest in technology that only a school environment can offer. Its technology is both familiar and challenging.

Librarians have evolved into guides. I’d even go so far as to title them “Yodas” to signify significant break from the traditional hierarchy. It acknowledges how learning today is effusive and immersive. We need to teach each other – regardless of age or social status.

There is a café, recognizing the body and mind as interconnected. These are young adults: let them have a café latte if they so desire.

Does it work? It sure worked in the Entertainment Technology Center. It worked well enough for me to travel the globe extensively extolling the virtues of what Randy and I accomplished.

Although my visit to Elizabeth Forward occurred at the onset of its implementation, already teachers were hailing the actuality of students wanting to remain at school after hours, of young people excited and proud of their facility, of ideas being born, shared, and nurtured.

To me, Elizabeth Forward is the future because it truly pays homage to our past: our childhood of curiosity, the desire to figure out this life and world, and to connect to humans of all races, cultures, ages, and knowledge.

Published February 03, 2013