Joe Erpelding on Magical Schools and Thrively

Joe Erpelding

On this episode of the Getting Smart podcast, Tom sits down with Joe Erpelding, a passionate educator and leader who is in the business of transforming schools and students’ lives.

Joe served as a Principal in Poway Unified School District for a number of years before making his way to Design39 where he was able to create a magical, one-of-a-kind school experience. He is now transitioning to support the team at Thrively, a tool for helping learners understand their strengths, purpose and passion.

Let’s listen in as Tom and Joe talk about what makes Design39 a magical place to be, why design thinking matters and what Thrively can do for education.

Joe helped to lead a school that, to Tom and many others, feels “magical”. He says the feeling happens because Design39 is truly focused on people and agency, a remarkable team of learning experience designers (teachers) and instilling purpose. Joe says “The ‘Why’ is your inspiration. The ‘How’ is your perspiration.” He also reflects on being known as “the duct tape and cardboard school,” and that getting Design39 to this place wasn’t easy: “It took us two years to find who we are and know who we wanted to become.”

Part of this magical experience comes down to space itself. In primary classrooms, there are sparse walls, movable spaces, vertical boards and everything is super social. When asked about the culture of collaboration, Joe said “Tom, in our day we probably called it cheating. Today we call it learning.”

From a curriculum and model perspective, Design39 had an early commitment to competency-based learning as a result of a partnership with Education Reimagined. This helped to instill context, skills, dispositions which provided steps rather than grades. They also live and breathe design thinking. Teachers often occupy design studios in the morning and do a SCRUM board between the STEM and humanities teams. This mentality is even applied in Kindergarten. Joe speaks often of the human element of design thinking, “It’s not about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, it’s about walking a mile with them.”

The slogan of Design39 is “Life ready thought leaders who elevate humanity.”

Joe also said that in his time as head of school he has learned that the primary responsibility is to be the “culture captain.” He doesn’t have his own office, he is nomadic and frequently interacting with students and teachers. It’s all about creating a culture of “How might we…” With regards to Professional Learning opportunities at Design39, Joe talks about “Project Beep Beep”, a field trip type of initiative where everybody gets in vans to go tour businesses, schools, etc.

Towards the end of the conversation, they get to Thrively, Joe’s newest journey. Thrively is about “discovering your inner genius” and the goal is to “impact the soul of humanity”. It is a strengths-based platform that asks the question “what’s strong with you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” Thrively is able to find small trends that could point to a bigger purpose for learners, whether it’s a potential career path, industry, etc.

When asked about what Thrively says about students who appear to be struggling with school “when we run the data, their number one skillset is perseverance. What they’re really missing is analytic skills.”

Key Takeaways:

[:09] About today’s episode with Joe Erpelding.
[:44] Tom Vander Ark welcomes Joe to the podcast!
[:50] How long has Joe been with Design39?
[1:05] What makes Design39 such a magic TK-8 campus.
[2:46] How the Design39 building reflects the amazing program and culture.
[3:15] How Joe and his colleagues describe what learners should know and be able to do at Design39.
[4:53] How they express their learning goals at Design39.
[5:53] What design thinking means to Joe and how they practice it at Design39.
[7:02] Joe builds a picture of what you would see if you walked into the classrooms of the primary grades.
[8:37] About the double classrooms, common spaces, and unique seating options at Design39.
[9:58] Joe shares about the unique “learning parties” at Design39 for the intermediate grades.
[11:10] The role of the teacher (or “learning experienced designers,” as they’re called at Design39).
[13:19] How does Joe think about the role of a school head, now having almost two decades of school leadership?
[14:37] Joe describes a difficult challenge that their community went through and how they approached it together, ultimately overcoming it.
[16:46] How Joe leads his own learning as a school head.
[19:04] How Joe and his colleagues led a new way forward in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
[21:51] About the Thrively app, how it is being used at Design39, and what Joe is hoping to accomplish by joining the team.
[24:52] The age range Thrively covers.
[25:25] How the feature “sparks” within the Thrively platform helps ignite students’ curiosity.
[26:10] How Thrively helps promote social justice.
[27:01] The various ways teachers can utilize Thrively.
[29:16] Joe’s hopes for joining the Thrively team and what he hopes they can accomplish over the next two years.
[30:21] Where to learn more about Thrively, Design39Campus, and connect with Joe online.
[30:55] Tom thanks Joe for joining the podcast.

Mentioned in This Episode:

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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