Real Education for the Real World: A Conversation with Elizabeth Dowell

Q&A   08 July 2020
By Elizabeth Dowell, Lark Academy

 

I realized I didn’t have to adhere to the way things have been done before and decided it was okay to reimagine the whole structure. It was okay to truly start from scratch.

Elizabeth Dowell
Founder and Executive Director, Lark Academy

Q: Coming from a family of educators, did you feel your career path was predestined?

Elizabeth: Predestined is a big word. I like to think I found my own path here. But, then again, we have a family saying, “Teaching is in your bones.” So, perhaps it was inevitable that I became an educator. After all, my mom became a teacher when I started elementary school and nearly all of her immediate family are or were in education, too. 

I have always loved learning, but I haven’t always loved school. My success in the classroom was often directly tied to whether I was interested in the subject or project, or if I liked the teacher. By middle school, I was starting to rebel and became disengaged with academics at school—I was becoming a bit of a bad kid. 

My mom (who taught sixth grade) thought it would be best to transfer me to her middle school which had some amazing teachers and received annual grants for arts education. I think she hoped the creativity-focused staff would catch my interest and get me back on track. And, she wasn’t wrong. There were more things I liked there, so I participated more.

In 2000, I was admitted to a local high school magnet program for international studies. Although I was excited to be in high school, I became profoundly bored and found most of my classes pointless. No one could give me a good explanation for why I needed to learn the content, and I didn’t buy the vague, “you’ll need this after high school” stump speech. As a result, I did pretty terribly my freshman and sophomore year. My report card was half A’s and the rest was C’s, D’s, and even an F or two. My parents, like most in their position, were not thrilled.   

 

I learned I never wanted the responsibility of teaching five-year-olds how to use scissors or draw straight lines ever again. I love kids, but I discovered content, not basic motor skills, was my passion.

Elizabeth Dowell
Founder and Executive Director, Lark Academy

The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I learned that graduating was more about jumping through hoops and collecting credits than actually learning things. I realized if I put my mind to it, I could finish high school that year and be done. So, that’s what I did. In June 2003, I graduated high school at the age of 16.

I had been so focused on finishing high school that I didn’t think about what I would do afterwards. 

My mom’s colleague suggested I go teach English in China. And, I was on an airplane to Shanghai five weeks later. I lived in Suzhou for two years and taught conversational English to eight different classes of middle schoolers—each with 45 students. It was the first time I felt independent and on a path I chose. 

At 18, I went to Australia and turned what was supposed to be a short trip into a multi-year adventure. My parents were insistent I go to college and said I had spent enough time “dallying.” Ever the rebel, I decided to apply to schools in Melbourne where I was living, rather than returning to the United States. I got into the University of Melbourne, where I studied primary school education.

I taught in a kindergarten class while there, which was terrifying. I learned I never wanted the responsibility of teaching five-year-olds how to use scissors or draw straight lines ever again. I love kids, but I discovered content, not basic motor skills, was my passion. So, I decided to leave Melbourne longing for the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest.

 

I knew if I was going to be a teacher, I wanted to be a teacher who would be flexible and see learners as individuals.

Elizabeth Dowell
Founder and Executive Director, Lark Academy

When I came back to the US just before I turned 21, I accepted an outdoor education position as a ranch camp director where l still camp and volunteer to this day. That fall, I enrolled at Portland State University where I received degrees in Anthropology and Geography, even though I knew teaching was the end goal. 

In 2011, at 27, I decided it was time to be an “adult” and pursued my masters in education. After graduating, I landed at a charter school where I taught all of the social studies subjects (except US History) and a few humanities electives. 

For five years, I helped students with credit recovery, introduced clubs like the National Honor Society, taught AP classes, ran professional development, and presented at conferences for education technology up and down the West Coast. In 2016, I was offered a continuing education fellowship at Oxford University, which was a dream. By that point, I was starting to burn out, and Oxford was an attempt to recapture my passion for education. 

But then, in 2018, I quit teaching. In my last year, I taught more than a dozen classes and over 300 students at a blended learning school serving a majority at-risk and special needs population. I was the only social studies teacher on staff. I have always loved my kids and my content; but the volume was overwhelming, and the additional demands from administration were untenable. So, I quit—vowing never to work in a career that required so much emotional labor (and so little compensation) again. 

That vow lasted about a month. In the fall of 2018, I decided I was going to open my own high school, Lark Academy, that did all the things I wished schools had done over the years. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, we are holding off our campus opening until further notice. Instead, we are offering more flexible online programming and courses to support teens and families for the remainder of 2020.

Q: What past experiences served as examples for the type of learning you wanted to provide young people?

Elizabeth: I had a few amazing teachers in high school who motivated me and connected me to subjects I still love. I took an Anthropology elective where I was exposed to cultural research and ethnography. In that same class, I was allowed to submit oil paintings as part of my final assessment. My IB Theory of Knowledge teacher gave me the freedom to create books of philosophical diagrams to show my understanding. My senior English teacher let me invent my own assignments after demonstrating I had already read everything on the required reading list. 

From those glimpses, I knew education could be different. I knew if I was going to be a teacher, I wanted to be a teacher who would be flexible and see learners as individuals. Learning is more than memorizing facts. It is about helping learners discover ideas and agency in their experience. 

Before I could teach, I knew I needed more life experience. It was that line of thinking that resulted in my decision to travel the world and get a masters degree in my late twenties, rather than go straight from high school to undergrad to graduate school.

For me, education meant more than sitting in a classroom. It was about wandering around a foreign city, learning a new language, and exploring another culture. While traveling, my frustration with the rigidity and limitations of American education grew. That’s why I created this school without any of those conventional structures.

Q: What challenges did you face as an educator within school-centered systems?

Elizabeth: I entered the field of teaching, like many others, very hopeful and more naïve than I realized. I loved the actual teaching part of my job, I just didn’t realize what a small part of my day it would end up being.

I made it past the five-year mark, the point at which something like 40% of new teachers quit, but not by much. Confronting the harsh reality that I, as a passionate well-educated expert, was not trusted to do what was best for my students and that my time was not valued, was rough. I stayed in conventional schools because I was determined to change things. I knew students deserved something better. 

During those five years, I was lucky to have some creative freedom. I was allowed to write my own curriculum for all my classes, and I poured my heart and soul into my content. Customizing my curriculum, projects, and assessments definitely increased my workload. But, it was worth it. I believed in empowering students to grapple with concepts and learn-by-doing. I found I couldn’t authentically teach any other way. 

 

It showed me that other amazing people are fighting this fight and reminded me just how long educators have been advocating for a more human, learner-centered approach.

Elizabeth Dowell
Founder and Executive Director, Lark Academy

This led to disagreements with those in positions of leadership. Specifically, over how to measure students’ success and the belief in data-driven education that reduced kids to numbers. They believed it was moving the needle, but students were being poorly served and the recommendations being made to “give every opportunity for students to pass” blurred ethical boundaries. 

While these directives from leadership weren’t always official, I felt a mounting pressure during my time as a teacher. School success, measured by graduation rates, is needed to demonstrate progress to the state and is often tied to funding. And thus, it was made clear that graduation rates needed to rise, no matter what.  

I knew that’s not how education should be done. I was part of a mass exodus of teaching staff from my charter school in 2017 because of requirements like this. I read my page-long letter of resignation to the board of directors that year, outlining what teachers were being asked to do and demonstrating (with meticulously collected data) that less than 40% of our jobs involved instruction-related activities. Data was king, and kids were an afterthought.

Sadly, I kept encountering more of the same after I left: percentages and data. Schools were mainly interested in the appearance of progress and not invested in what students actually needed.

 Q: After you knew you wanted to open a new learning environment, who and what inspired your work?

Elizabeth: In graduate school, I saw Sir Ken Robinson’s TED-talk “Do schools kill creativity?” and it stuck with me. Like many teachers, my bookshelves are filled with aspirational works by Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, Paul Tough, and Ted Dintersmith. Sadly, the longer I taught, the less I read books like that. 

Frustration and burn-out had worn away my optimism. But in early 2019, I bought What Schools Could Be by Dintersmith and voraciously read it over a weekend. I wrote notes and ideas in the margins in red ink, and it gave me hope. It showed me that other amazing people are fighting this fight and reminded me just how long educators have been advocating for a more human, learner-centered approach.

I started researching organizations—like Big Picture Learning and Project Wayfinder—that were providing young people with the tools and language to bring their ideas to life. Those networks led me to others, like Education Reimagined, and schools in my own community.

The Renaissance Arts Academy (opened by Susan Dunn) and the Arbor School of Arts and Sciences, for example, are doing amazing work grounded in experiential learning practices. I envision, one day, creating an innovative schools alliance that would tap these advocates and others along the West Coast. 

 

We see ourselves as a school for innovation, design, and entrepreneurship…We want to build a resilient, engaged citizenry ready to persevere and adapt to difficult times—shaping the future they want to live in.

Elizabeth Dowell
Founder and Executive Director, Lark Academy

Alongside these innovative models and thinkers, I draw from my experience of running outdoor education programs where experiential learning reigns supreme.

Another organization that has guided my thinking is the Mastery Transcript Consortium—a group aiming to redesign the high school transcript. At Lark, we’re not interested in using letter grades or test scores. We want everything to be progressional and proficiency-based. We want students to authentically engage on their individual journey—wherever that leads them. 

My thinking and vision became more flexible as this project came to life. I realized I didn’t have to adhere to the way things have been done before and decided it was okay to reimagine the whole structure. It was okay to truly start from scratch. 

I’ve seen a lot of conventional schools try to change just one or two elements of their model to be more learner-centered, but it’s not enough. Why keep doing things that aren’t working? If you’re going to rebuild the system, you might as well start from the ground up. There is no sense in applying a fresh coat of paint if the foundation is cracked.

Q: What is the foundation at Lark Academy made of?

Elizabeth: We see ourselves as a school for innovation, design, and entrepreneurship, but our program is bigger than that. We want to build a resilient, engaged citizenry ready to persevere and adapt to difficult times—shaping the future they want to live in. We are about empowering and connecting kids and cultivating curiosity, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, along with social and emotional wellness.

There are a few phrases I use a lot that underscore what we’re doing as an organization: one, “we need real education for the real world” and two: “we must maintain an optimistic, future-oriented mindset.” If we can keep those things in the back of our minds as we adapt and evolve, I believe we’ll create a truly responsive and transformative education model for the future.

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