Ideas From The Ground Up, Supported From The Top Down

I want to tell you a story.

During the mid 19th century the city of Chicago was in crisis. The elevation of the growing metropolis was not much higher than the shorelines of Lake Michigan. There was no natural drainage in the city and culminated in six straight years of epidemics that lead to the cholera outbreak in 1854 (that killed six percent of the city’s population).

Chicago was in crisis, and in 1856 came up with a plan lead by a host of young engineers to install a city-wide sewage system. Note: This was not the first plan. It came after many in positions of power wanted to create their own solutions – solutions that ultimately never worked.

The young engineers believed there were only two ways to quickly and effectively bring this sewage system to the city:  (A) abandon all of downtown and start over on the higher ground, or (B) jack up all the buildings where they were.

They chose “B” and the raising of Chicago began in earnest in 1858 when the first masonry building in the city was raised (a four-story, 70 foot long, and 750-ton brick structure) six feet higher than it had been with no damage to the building.

Raising Chicago

Remarkably, life in the city went on as normal—as normal as life in such a rapidly growing city can be. The Tremont House, Chicago’s most eminent hotel, was raised inch by inch over several days as guests, including a U.S. senator, resided inside. An entire half block of Lake Street was also lifted in one huge engineering feat. The engineer behind it? A young George Pullman, who would go on to amass a fortune with his Pullman sleeping car. WBEZ describes how Pullman pulled it off:

He had 6,000 jackscrews put under the buildings, and hired 600 men to take charge of ten jacks each. On the signal, each man turned the screws on his ten jacks one notch. The buildings went up a fraction of an inch.

This process was repeated again and again over four days. Meanwhile, temporary timbers were placed under the buildings and new foundations constructed. Then the buildings were lowered into place. All this was smoothly done, while business inside the buildings went on as usual.

The raising of Chicago is another example of how limitations and constraints can actually fuel problem-solving and innovative work. It was not all fairytales and good times during or after this process. It did not end as a complete success. The city’s new sewage system had only one outlet. Sewage soon poured into Lake Michigan, polluting the city’s source of drinking water. That eventually led to the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 (another huge infrastructure feat).

Growing Ideas From the Ground Up

There are many lessons I took from the story of Chicago raising the entire city. The one that sticks out the most for me is that the ideas that worked were developed from people who had the knowledge and experience to make it happen.

I’m often asked when leading workshops the same question: How do we solve problems and come up with realistic and innovative solutions for school?

My answer is always: From the ground up.

A surefire way to halt creativity and innovation is for the leaders to have all the ideas. The Mayor of Chicago didn’t have all the ideas to solve their sewage crisis. He turned to his engineers to navigate ideas that would solve the issue. Was their debate? Of course. But, the city council then supported the plan from the ground up in order to make it happen.

In fact, this is the cornerstone of being a creative leader: You can’t be the one that has all the ideas.

So, if this is true, how do we build this type of culture from the ground up? How can we empower teachers and students to share their ideas, to be creative, and to make sure they are valued?

I can’t think of a more important time than right now to have input from our students, teachers, staff and communities.

One of the best at this is the High School Principal at William Tennent (the district where I worked). Dennis Best has seen what happens when he supports and helps to grow teacher’s and students’ ideas.

He valued our teacher’s ideas for an innovation program and supported CentennialX, our home-grown human-centered design program where students work side-by-side major companies and organizations to solve real-world problems.

In addition, our partnerships with companies, organizations, and institutions have grown with teachers and students working alongside people from:

  • Student Innovation Team who solved real problems at their school and were backed and funded by the school to support their solutions.
  • The Character Lab (Angela Duckworth’s team is doing action research in our schools and working with our teachers and students around grit and character)
  • Drexel University (our students go to Drexel Med to work on real cadavers)
  • The University of Pennsylvania (our biology and psych students work with lab rats and we recently built a lab with real rats in our HS)
  • St. Joseph’s University (our students work with undergrad students who are performing neurosurgery)
  • Fox Chase Cancer Center (the TRIP program and our Genetics of Cancer course)
  • ShopRite (we have a Shoprite store in our HS where students work at and the community shops at)
  • Eli Lilly and PRA Health Sciences (sponsored student challenges for our design teams to solve real medical problems while in school)
  • MIT Cycling Team (our students developed a new cycling performance sock for the MIT Team during CentennialX)

Amidst all of these innovative opportunities, the teaching and learning continued at WTHS. There was not a huge reform movement that had to stop everything we were doing to start something new. The change happened from within and took place while life went on.

Recently WTHS took this approach a step further with their Teacher Innovation Pitch.

How to Run a Teacher Innovation Pitch at Your School

First, Dennis and his administrative team identified the areas of innovation, growth, and success at William Tennent High School. They noticed that many of these areas were started by staff and supported by the administration.

Yet, they were still in pockets and wanted more teachers to feel empowered to have ideas and try something new with their students or in their own professional journey.

Enter the Teacher Innovation Pitch.

Then in the spring, teachers had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to their colleagues and administration.

The goal is to further empower our teachers to:

  • Take instructional risks and feel free to not be perfect.
  • Innovate.  
  • Develop and leverage partnerships to provide opportunities for students to participate in authentic, real-world learning experiences.

Why Should Teachers get Involved???  

Perhaps you’ve identified a problem in your school/course/program/etc. you would like to solve.

Maybe you are interested in developing a new partnership to provide opportunities for students to participate in authentic, real-world learning experiences.

You may simply be seeking a new outlet for professional growth.

Like the raising of Chicago, we are leaning on the expertise and experience of our staff to solve problems and come up with unique and creative solutions. We have to value the ideas and support the work of everyone in our schools.

Like the raising of Chicago, we are continuing the teaching and learning while this is taking place.

Like the raising of Chicago, there will be successes, mistakes, and possibly unintended consequences. We’ll continue to move forward and solve issues as needed.

And, like the raising of Chicago, we can do great things when forced to be innovative due to constraints.

This doesn’t give a pass for not funding schools properly. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Schools have always needed to be funded better (and differently) than they are right now. Now is an inflection point where everyone can see WHY (if they could not before) schools need to be funded appropriately. Just as Chicago spent massive funds to raise their city for a solution that was viable, so too must we fund schools and communities right now and in the future.

Here’s the slides Dennis and his team shared with teachers as they embarked on their first Teacher Innovation Pitch.

How are you planning for the most unpredictable school year from the ground up? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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