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.

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 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 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).

Raising the Learning Experience at Your School

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 life went on.

Businesses kept operating. People continued to work. Families continued to grow. And the population increased.

All while the very buildings they lived in were raised inch-by-inch beneath their feet and while they slept.

Innovation didn’t stop everyone in their tracks. Instead, it made life better in new ways.

The same can be said for raising the learning experiences in our schools and classrooms. I’m often asked when leading workshops or speaking around the country the same question: How do we grow a culture of innovation in our 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.

Role of the Creative Leader

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?

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

  • 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.

Starting this spring, teachers will have 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 fail.
  • 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 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.

Lack of time, lack of resources, and state standards can’t be an excuse not to do things new and better.

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

Next year, we may take it a step further and join the “Big Hunt for Ideas” created by the team at Minnetonka Public Schools. Minnetonka shares what happens during their Big Hunt:

The Big Hunt for Ideas is our crowd-based innovation program. We recognize the potential of employees to surface ideas that can lead to new products, new services, or better efficiencies in the ways that we work together. The Big Hunt for Ideas gives our staff a place to share their ideas with colleagues in an environment where the ideas can “socialize” through online discussion boards and engage other like-minded staff in a thoughtful conversation. When ideas start to gather broad support, the likelihood that the idea will move forward into the testing phase increases. At any given time, we have over 50 ideas in the “Idea Pipeline” where they are incubating and waiting for an opportunity to validate and accelerate. It is through this process that we know we will find the next big ideas that will help our students find success. 

The four questions I keep coming back to again and again when thinking about how to grow a culture of innovation are:

  1. What do we allow for?
  2. What do we make time for?
  3. What do we support?
  4. What do we celebrate and measure?

How are you growing innovation from the ground up? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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