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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Retreat for Reimagination

A Retreat for Reimagination

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I spent time with good friends this past week from around the world, my wife Wendy at my side.  We were reimagining education: Wendy’s from the standpoint of early childhood development and caretaking as she serves Indiana State University’s Early Childhood Education Center; mine from the standpoint of Pre-K – 20.

Friends from United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Tunisia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, and Japan met in a mountainous valley, just down the road from a remote Hindu Temple, to talk about how education “could be for all children” if we would just reimagine those possibilities, effortfully and enjoyably.

The setting was ideal, a school unlike most others, run by my good friend, Jeff King. 

I first met Jeff when he was a therapist for an in-patient/out-patient treatment facility.  My first recollection of him was when he strolled up to our visiting delegation, equipment from an adventure education course in hand, inviting us to have a bit of fun as we spent a few days at their place for the first Process Communication Model (PCM) education summit in Newton, Kansas.   Now the Head of School far from the Midwest and expanding his operation from early childhood, elementary, and middle school … into high school as well, Jeff was the most congenial of hosts in the most reimaginative of places.

As Wendy and I drove through the Malibu Canyon area northwest of Los Angeles to arrive at this international education summit, we entered a little slice of Heaven on Earth.  The winding, narrow mountain passes were breathtaking.  Just down the road from Jeff’s school, we passed the site where the television show *MASH* was filmed decades ago.  If you remember the show’s introduction with helicopters flying over the mountains, that was our topography.  Rumor has it that the jeep and ambulance from the show’s set still sit alongside a marked trail, yet the 5-mile round-trip hike was a bit of a deterrent as I had a busy conference presentation schedule and am not fond of the potential to meet mountain lions up close (I hear that this concern was much ado about nothing).

We also learned during our visit that the current HBO television show True Blood is filmed adjacent to Jeff’s school.  Some at the school climb the hills at night overlooking the set to watch the filming.  Reminds me of the time that I opened up my school once for a Zombie flick, Locked Away.  It was tons of fun, especially the time they had a mid-day Zombie bride walking across our parking lot with a real bride 100 yards away attending her own wedding at an adjacent church.

Yet I digress.

As the mountaintop gate opened, we peered over the car’s dashboard down a steep (steep!), winding road to MUSE School. Far below, we noticed an expansive former encampment, refurbished delightfully at the foot of surrounding mountains, a climbing wall for children in the distance and extremely long tubes resting upon the bottom of the mountainside, a child’s dream for amusement park sliding during recess.

Trails abound and beautiful bungalows for classrooms dotted the campus.  A small house was built upon a tree, with branches teaming from the windows … the world’s coolest tree fort.  A large, outdoor amphitheatre for whole-school presentations was situated mid-way toward the back-campus trail that rose steeply up the mountainside.  It looked as though MUSE recycled the remnants of an old water tower, with many in our congregation grabbing ropes to climb to it.  It had something to do with experiential learning, yet with so much to experience, I didn’t make the climb and do not know for sure.  MUSE even had an outdoor pool for a quick dip for children and staff, alike. 

And sustainability.  What sustainability! 

We were encouraged not to bring disposable cups or candy on campus.  I have never enjoyed so much fruit-infused water in my life … served in reusable canteens that we got to keep.  Thoughts went embarrassingly to the soft drink machines I used to put in our school’s hallways to make money for the student activities fund.  Food was served on biodegradable, wooden plates, even the small plates for hummus.  Most meals, if not all served, were organically grown.  Conference organizers even reserved the hotel in neighboring Agoura Hills near the shopping outlet Trader Joe’s for our delegation, as they wished to provide us healthy eating alternatives when we were in our hotel rooms late at night.  Nearly eighty percent of their fruits and vegetables for consumption are grown on site, if I remember correctly.

Oh … and the educational program -- WOW!!!  

Students learn any way they need to learn.  Faculty members teach the way the students need them to teach in order for students to learn.  They connect with each student individually.  Many of you may know that this is one reason why I study and research The Process Education Model (PEM).

Whole-group instruction is provided when it works.  As well, targeted, individualized learning provides the foundation for all, not simply aligned with roughly categorized student learning styles, but surgically aligned to the manner in which student personality develops between birth and age seven, as well as to the way it develops beyond that time based on life experiences.  Factoring in students’ perceptual frames, personality parts, communication channels, environmental preferences, managerial styles, psychological needs (and mindful of distress patterns), these staff members certainly know how to perform their surgery.

Academic expectations are high, and the avenue toward robust instructional outcomes is progressively open, expansive, and free of bureaucratic entanglement.  MUSE leaders fundraise to free themselves of the shackles of prescribed practice and are savvy enough to realize that the bully pulpits of business and the media do not a quality education make.  Although MUSE charges tuition, school leaders note that they are able to offset costs for those with financial need, if families are willing to embrace their educational program.

And what about Jeff? 

Well, in addition to being a great guy and an outstanding school leader … he’s Rebecca’s husband – Rebecca Amis, an early-child educator by trade who started plying her craft in Early Head Starts, just like my wife, Wendy.  That’s probably why Wendy and Rebecca hit it off so well.  We left with plans for Rebecca to learn more about what ISU does with its Reggio Emilia approach for infants from 0 – 2 and for Wendy to learn more about how MUSE’s program and PEM interface with Reggio Emilia.

I have known Rebecca since 2007, when we met in Hot Springs, Arkansas, shortly after she and Jeff married.  We all share an interest in communication theory and human behavioral analysis.  At the time, I heard from Rebecca that she had just started a school with her sister Suzy Amis Cameron, who had been asking Rebecca for quite some time to do so.  Suzy wished to offer for others what she wanted for her own children.

Shortly after I met Suzy in Vienna last year, I learned that she was not an educator by trade, yet a former actress.  Something tells me that Jeff may have mentioned this to me, once upon a time. One probably remembers Suzy from the movies Titanic, Judgment Day, or a host of others, as she had quite the career.  As a great actress on a much smaller stage, she even played “my model student” (a Thinker, in PCM parlance) in a training demonstration that we provided to educators in Austria last year.  It was a blast!

Suzy has a vision … as does Rebecca – one of educational REIMAGINATION.  Their goal?  “World Domination,” as Suzy jokes.  They are in the process of starting partner schools in many countries around the world.  Jeff takes care of MUSE proper, while the sisters are globetrotting and teaching communities about the possibilities for their children.  For those familiar with PEM, many call Rebecca and Suzy the “Persister Sisters.”

What’s my point this week? 

I’m not sure, really … except to say that I felt very good about education as I sat in the Los Angeles International Airport awaiting our flight and beginning this week’s five-minute read.  I felt good about my time at MUSE … about the presentations I delivered at the international summit … about those I enjoyed … about the simultaneous translations into Japanese as our friends from Asia sat among us learning how we could reimagine the world for our children. 

I felt really good talking at length with new friend and colleague Elliot Washor from Big Picture Learning who attended one of my sessions and discussed research that needed to be done at MUSE, of which Indiana State University would be most-valuable as an external evaluator.  Elliot is working with Jeff, Suzy, and Rebecca on their curriculum and program and has a new book out with Charles Mojkowski, Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates.  Darn good!  I read much of it on the plane. 

I also enjoyed my time with friend Michael Gilbert talking about our ongoing book project and Nate Regier, talking about our global research study.  Time with Taibi Kahler and his wife, Shirl, was invaluable, as was my reconnecting with many friends whom I see typically once a year at similar events.  Wendy and I had a distinct pleasure of meeting another new friend, Evelina Christopherson, Director of Eco Events at the school, one of those amazing, authentic, and compassionate people who truly make a lasting impression as they care for others. I just wanted to mention Evelina, as we all could use her level of caretaking as a model as we serve others. One highlight was being asked to host the International Process Communication Model (PCM) Academy Awards with my friend Jerome Lefeuvre from France.  I thought, “Why Not!” as Wendy and I had just snapped a picture of Suzy’s husband, Jim’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I’m now in Terre Haute, Indiana, with my head out of the mountains … on campus once again.  It’s nice to be back.  In my travels home, I got back to business conversing with two of my students applying for superintendencies and another one, a principalship.  It was exciting, talking with them, knowing that after they are successful in their interviews, they will make such a difference in the lives of children, with ISU’s leadership preparation programs a part of that blessed opportunity.

I’ll end this week, not really making any direct point, but by letting my experiences percolate further as I muse, while encouraging all of us to reflect upon summer experience and our own personal/professional rejuvenation while reimagining the ways in which our schools can start anew, with the opportunities shortly upon us.


For more information about MUSE, please visit  You’ll be glad that you did.  If you would like to reimagine with Dr. Ryan Donlan or discuss further the Process Education Model (PEM), please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at  Dr. Donlan’s new article entitled, The Process Education Model (PEM): A Catalyst for School Improvement, is now available in the Journal of Process Communication and offers alignment of the theories of Dr. Taibi Kahler’s with the work of Charlotte Danielson and Dr. Robert Marzano. 

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