Teresa Poppen is founder and executive director of One Stone, a student-led and directed nonprofit that strives to make students better leaders and the world a better place. This fall it will launch what it calls the “Unschool”—a free, independent high school that replaces classes, grades, teachers, and classrooms with experiential, project-based learning rooted in the design-thinking process.
Let’s start with students. What do they think about One Stone and the “Unschool”?
Students tell us that other programs for teens are like riding a bus and that One Stone is like getting the keys to the car.
What was the inspiration for the “Unschool”?
Over the past few years, many parents and One Stone students asked, “Why can’t One Stone be a school?” So we used our design thinking approach to examine the issue. We brought together 150 high school students from across southwest Idaho for our “24 Hour Think Challenge” focused on redesigning school from a student’s perspective. We visited other learning models and spoke with experts and entrepreneurs in the fields of innovative learning approaches and education technology. Through this process, we learned that One Stone’s model of student empowerment, our “secret sauce,” is a very powerful foundation for learning.
What’s the reaction been since you announced this new approach?
Overwhelming enthusiasm! Students, parents, community and business leaders are really excited about a new learning option for students. They recognize that now is the time for this kind of innovation.
It seems the concept of design thinking is pivotal to One Stone’s philosophy - how will that be manifested in the school?
Design thinking is a creative, problem-solving process developed at the Stanford University Institute of Design - the d.school. The process encourages thinking outside the box and involves an entire team collaborating in the process. We use design thinking in all of the work we do. Human-centered design, deeply rooted in empathy, is how we find the best solutions and make the greatest impact.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges to this new approach?
We get questions like, “No grades? How will you assess student learning?” Or “No traditional courses. Yeah but, how will students learn subject matter?” These are legitimate questions. The model is so radically different, that I think that we’ll have to show, versus tell, how One Stone’s school prepares students for success. The good thing is we’re not alone in this movement to radically reinvent learning—many others across the country are doing similar things with proven results. We’ve seen excellent examples from Silicon Valley to Boston and places in between.
What are the biggest adjustments adults will need to make in this transition?
I think it will be most challenging for adults to get comfortable with students taking ownership in their own education. From our work at One Stone, we know projects are most successful when students are engaged, leading, accountable, and have skin in the game. The school’s focus on student voice and empowerment might be difficult for some adults.
How will you go about funding a no-tuition school?
We believe that diversity and inclusion are essential and that free tuition helps ensure students have the opportunity to attend regardless of economic circumstance. One Stone is funded through a variety of supporters—grants, corporate partners, and individual donors. In addition, we intend to fund some of our operations through student-led social ventures that will provide opportunities for students to learn about business while generating some revenue.
What criteria will be used to select students for enrollment?
The most important thing for One Stone when considering students is the right fit. We’re seeking trailblazers who are interested in discovering their purpose and their passion--learners who want to dive in, challenge themselves, and take ownership of their own education.
How do you think this non-traditional approach will be viewed by college admissions?
This was a big question for us in our early discovery process. We met with other school innovators, experts and college admissions officials, both locally and nationally, to discuss this issue. What we’ve learned is that One Stone’s school is on trend with a growing movement away from college admissions focusing on GPA and test scores and looking more at other assessments of readiness for college, potential for success and students’ unique characteristics, talents and capabilities.
How will students demonstrate this?
For example, One Stone students will all build a digital portfolio of everything that they do, that together with some measurements of competency and mastery, will give college admission officials a more robust picture of the whole student.
If you could change one thing in the world right now, what would it be?
I have seen that high school students are capable of extraordinary things when they are empowered. But sadly, so often they are not empowered--in fact they are ignored. They are a marginalized voice in many things, but outrageously, most often in their own futures. We see incredible innovation and creativity in One Stone students when we merely give them the tools and trust to make their mark on the world.
The question then is what other marginalized voices are we overlooking? Shouldn’t everyone be invited to make the world a better place--especially when it’s their world? Imagine what would be possible if we all shared our voices in ways to make positive change.
If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I wish that I could resist the urge to hit the snooze button a hundred times in a row when I set my alarm for a time that I really do need to get up.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Celery and peanut butter.
What scares you?
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A teacher, then not a teacher, then a mentor, then something entirely different. I’ve had a pretty widely varied career path—mostly marketing in the high tech industry, but everything from working at small companies to really big companies to managing a retail store to running my own communications and marketing firm. Ultimately, I found my real passion in founding and running a not-for-profit that develops young people.
What are you reading right now?
Hundreds of articles about schools. One leads you to the next, and to the next, and to the next. There are such amazing things going on in the learning and education space right now.
Lot of great questions, ideas and opinions but sometimes really enjoying plain old silence.
Shows on Netflix – no more than one a night. Also, watching my flowers and garden growing.
Who inspires you?
Purple, because it’s happy.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Rock - One Stone, of course!
Who are you following online?
Lots of things—again, there’s so much out there! Favorites are Stanford’s d.school, Sir Ken Robinson and Tom Vander Ark. I also read the Skimm every morning--the writing is very clever.
Who is the most progressive nonprofit or business leader you know?
David Kelley, the founder of Stanford’s d.school and IDEO.
Why do you do what you do?
I had the opportunity to attend Stanford University’s graduation in 2014 when Bill and Melinda Gates delivered the commencement address. The entire speech was moving, but the end was especially powerful. This was their call to action:
“Take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well. You don't have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That's enough for now. But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.”
At One Stone, I get to see this transformation in kids all the time. They come to One Stone for different reasons, but after they’re here, and through the empathy work that is at the root of what we do, they see something that breaks their heart--and they decide to do something about it. We’re forging an army of good, for good. This is how we’ll change the world.