A Reflection on My Junior Year Learning Journey

Learner Voices   11 August 2016
By Anya Smith-Roman


What started as just a fun challenge—to create a blog and post for 100 days in a row—has now become an integral part of my life.

Anya Smith-Roman

Blogging may not be for everyone, but, for me, it has helped to clarify some of my own observations and thoughts on different parts of my daily life. And, the best part is that it allows me to track and record my reflections, insights, and key learning moments throughout each year.

Now that summer is here, it’s a great time to zoom out and reflect upon those key learnings I gained about myself, utilizing the design process, and the future of education. Below are a few of those reflections—as well as links to the blog posts they originated from.

The Need for Flexible Schedules

“Sometimes it feels like we’re just constantly waiting for Thursdays.” I’ve written this a few times this past year “because [Thursdays] are the days we always leave feeling like we actually were really productive and successful in making progress towards a bigger goal in our journey.” This is due to the lack of flexibility in our school schedule. In the “real world,” people do not work on a bell schedule that has obscure periods of time—like 10:15-11:05—and this past year, as I have started to do even more “real world” work, I’ve found myself struggling to find times to meet with people due to my odd school schedule. On Thursdays though, we have the first half of the day to dive deeper into work. It is our project-based learning time. During this time, I’m able to go off campus, interview people, work on prototypes with tools, etc.

Now, imagine—with the amount of work that can happen during half of a day—what we could do if we had a whole week. Students and teachers alike could travel around the world exploring ancient Rome; meeting with young entrepreneurs in San Francisco; conversing with citizens of Peru’s mountains; and tackling real world challenges, like finding clean water to drink. When students have time, there are myriad possibilities that can be explored, and they don’t even have to happen that far away from school. Just as easily as you could have time to travel the world, you could also have time to meet with people in your own community—a school’s backyard—having conversations to learn more about the community you live in.

Schools talk about wanting students to be good problem solvers; the first step in problem solving is problem finding, and the best way to problem find is to get out of your classroom chair and observe, interact, and make connections to things happening in the world. If we hope for students to be doing real world work and problem solving, then we need to support this type of work by having school schedules that are more flexible to allow for meetings, off-campus work, and time to really get into a flow of working.

The Role of Teachers

The biggest adventure of this year for me was running the first ever, student-designed AP Course, which allowed me to take ownership of my learning in a way never before experienced. A partner and I created this course because we wanted to challenge the education status quo, have the opportunity to test project ideas we’ve had over the years, and have the freedom to take control of our learning as we explore our interests through the lens of language.

For this to work, we had to be the student, teacher, facilitator, coach, mentor…everything all in one, and, with this newfound ownership of our learning, I developed a better understanding for how I envision a 21st- century teacher. “I can teach, mentor, coach, and facilitate. But, when I’m in a class, I want a teacher who can bring their past experience and constantly change between all 4 of those roles and more when needed.

I want a guide in the classroom. Someone to teach me skills, mentor me through stress, coach me to be confident, and facilitate me and my peers around common challenges. Most importantly, though, a guide occasionally lets their followers explore the woods and decide what path to turn down. A guide helps students along the path they choose and points out the important landmarks along the way.”


Schools talk about wanting students to be good problem solvers; the first step in problem solving is problem finding, and the best way to problem find is to get out of your classroom chair and observe, interact, and make connections to things happening in the world.

Anya Smith-Roman

Between the research I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had with educators around the world, I’m convinced that the role of teachers will change as education continues to transform. My experience creating and leading this course, among others, has taught me that teachers and students make a great team when working together, and I hope the future of education sees more guides in the “classroom” (or whatever you might call them). The words we use are less important than the action steps we take; whether it be a teacher, mentor, coach, facilitator, guide, etc. I envision a future where age is not the sole determiner of who is leading and owning learning journeys. But, instead, we are all working together to enhance the future and learning along the way.

Prototyping and Launching

Another huge project for me this past year was my work with the ReSpIn Organization I co-created. ReSpIn strives to Reduce waste, Spark conversations, and Inspire change around 21st century sustainability. The first product to come from the ReSpIn team was the RISE Sustainability System—a learning tool for teachers and students to use in order to help facilitate conversations and activities around sustainability. For this project, we created dozens of prototypes and had many moments where we struggled with taking the RISE bin to the next level.

This struggle though, is truly what happens in the “real world” with product designs. Projects take time and lots of prototypes and feedback. The most inspiring piece of feedback that we were given was from a little 5th grade girl who told me, “This is the best design challenge we’ve done because we never get to see a project like this get this far.” My work with the ReSpIn team isn’t complete yet. But, after this year, I’ve learned the true value of prototyping early and getting feedback from a myriad of people in order to push ideas forward. No one will ever have a job in which they are working entirely alone 100% of the time or get everything 100% right on the first try (despite the mindset students are expected to have when taking a quiz or test). Due to this, it is immensely important that students begin to learn how to prototype to their best ability then work with others to gain feedback on how to make their work better.

Sense of Self

Amongst the things that I’ve learned about school and design thinking, I’ve also learned a lot about myself over this past year. I’ve always been a person with countless interests, passions, and after-school activities that have consumed my “free time.” I’ve often thought of this as a problem because I can’t make up my mind on how to spend my time. I just get too interested in everything simply because I’m curious and love learning. Then I watched the TED Talk, “Why some of us don’t have one true calling,” and it was possibly the most moving TED Talk I’ve watched yet. Emilie Wapnick introduced me to a world of people just like me and talked about the positive side to being what she calls a “multipotentialite.” According to Wapnick, a “multipotentialite” is good at:

• Idea Synthesis: bringing together seemingly different concepts to find the intersections where great ideas come from.

• Rapid Learning: getting deeply curious about one thing and learning a ton about it before moving on to the next thing.

• Adaptability: being able to put on different hats in different situations where different roles are necessary.

With this new concept, I’ve been discovering a deeper sense of self, which is an essential part of learning. I’m a person with many different interests, but I can also find the connections between these diverse topics easily. This helps me to build project teams and find the relationships between things like gymnastics and education transformation.


If we aren’t using student voice in the process of reimagining education, then we will never reach our greatest potential.

Anya Smith-Roman

Finding and watching this TED Talk was such an important moment for me because I believe that knowing myself is the first step to being able to better understand the world. Truthfully, I believe that K-12 education does not focus enough on students learning about and discovering their sense of self. My sense of self has developed immensely due to blogging because sometimes when I write and then read over my writing, I’m able to discern trends and tendencies about how I act and respond to situations better than I can otherwise. I can then hypothesize about my future self in situations based on these observations. I’m still discovering more about myself everyday, and it makes me excited—I wish more students got the chance to experience this. As I move forward in life, I hope to learn more about ways to help other kids learn more about themselves because it’s an important part of growing up.

The Role of Student Voice in Education Transformation

Learning more about myself has also helped me learn more about ways that I can contribute to the movement to transform education. This year I served as an MVIFI (Mount Vernon Institute For Innovation) Fellow, which opened up a number of opportunities for me to lead all kinds of educators in conversations and challenges. In design thinking, we highly value and work with our users. The main users of schools are the students. So, it only makes sense that for us to re-design schools, we need to value and work with students. Not only is it helpful for students to provide feedback and be involved with ideating on projects, but it is also a huge confidence builder as a student to be talking with external mentors about “real world” issues, such as education transformation.

In the business world, a good trade is only made when there is “mutual value”—when both parties gain something from the transaction. In my opinion, adding student voice to education conversations is a mutually beneficial transaction at its finest. Students gain confidence and practice in real-world skills like communication and problem solving, while the adults gain fresh manpower, as well as new ideas and insights from people in the generation they are designing for.

And, thinking like a kid often makes the world seem more magical and full of possibilities. When I imagine the future of education, I see a wondrous realm of malleable potential. That’s the vision I hope everyone can learn to see. If we aren’t using student voice in the process of reimagining education, then we will never reach our greatest potential.

All of these key learning moments from this past year have been made even greater in my mind because I was able to reflect upon them on my blog. Blogging has given me a place to share my story in a way that allows me to easily look back and find trends and connections between my observations. And, on top of everything, I’m constantly expanding my network and getting new opportunities. I know I’m not the best writer in the world, and I know it’s the area that I could most improve on. But, since I’ve been blogging, I’ve developed a new confidence and joy in my writing. Writing helps us think, reflecting helps us grow, and sharing helps make the world a better place—blogging is all three in one!

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