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Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Discovery & applying
  3. Four years worth of projects
  4. State testing & instructional approaches
  5. It's your decision
  6. Preparation for college
  7. Things HTH does differently
  8. The goal of school
  9. Further reading

1. Introduction (contents)

I recently watched the documentary film "Most Likely to Succeed". It's being hailed as:

The best film ever done on the topic of school - both its past and its future.

I watched with great interest because not only do I work for an education technology company, but I attended and graduated (2001-2005) from High Tech High (HTH), the school featured in the film.

The film starts with an abridged history of grade school in the United States. It then presents a bleak future where machines replace the majority of blue collar jobs, making our current K-12 education model obsolete. The majority of the film focuses on HTH, a charter school that has radically reimagined what a modern high school can be. It values projects over tests, discussions over lectures, and presentations of learning over final exams.

The future of education is a highly debated topic. People of all professions have written books, blog posts, and tweet storms with the intent of getting us to reimagine our education system. Through all that noise we have HTH, a tangible working model of a modern school. With it's doors first opening in the year 2000, it has had 15 years to refine its product: a modern high school.As I watched the film I kept thinking about how each incoming freshmen class benefits from the collective experience of the classes that came before. 15 years of experimenting and soliciting feedback from students has resulted in a fine-tuned model where 98% of the students in the last graduating class were accepted into college.

One of HTH's biggest advantages is it's adaptability. Like a startup, HTH has the ability to experiment, build upon what works, and get rid of what doesn't. For example, during my first two years HTH had a great room. A large open room with computers that anyone could use for school work. Great room time was given during class time to work on projects. It turns out high school kids are pretty bad at managing free time so Great room time, although good in theory, was taken away. It's an example of the feedback loop that exists at HTH. Someone had a "what if we did this" idea, tried it, collected feedback, and made modifications.

Another example is how HTH flipped the order in which science classes are taken. At a typical high school freshmen take Biology, sophomores take Chemistry, and juniors/seniors take Physics. At HTH, freshmen take Physics & Engineering, sophomores take Chemistry, juniors take Biotech, and seniors can take Environmental Science or Advanced Physics. Why the different order? The founders of HTH felt that each subject builds on the next one, and that this order made more sense than the traditional high school order.

Experiment. Collect feedback. Adjust. The school's malleability is one of its biggest advantages. There is no way a traditional high school can experiment with education the way HTH can. If a traditional high school is like the taxi industry, HTH is Uber.

My goal with this post is to share my experience of being part of HTH's third graduating class. How attending HTH impacted my future and what traditional schools can learn from HTH. I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to attend HTH. It helped shape the person I am today and prepared me for success in college and beyond. Hopefully after reading this post you'll understand why.

And finally I really encourage you to watch "Most Likely to Succeed" because it provides a touching depiction of how transformative and forward-thinking a modern high school can be.


2. Discovery & applying (contents)

My dad discovered HTH through a local newspaper article. It was advertised as a different kind of high school with an emphasis on project based learning. With funding from the Jacobs family (founders of Qualcomm) and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, my dad was intrigued.

He asked if I'd be interested in applying and I said yes. Part of the reason was the school's emphasis on technology (I was a tech nerd already so this had great appeal), and I did not want to go to my local high school. It was overcrowded and other issues that created a school environment I did not want to be part of.

The application process was straightforward. Phase 1 was a paper application that included short essay questions like why I wanted to go to HTH and describe a project I was proud of. Phase 2 was an interview that took place on campus over the summer. It was a great opportunity to visit and get a feel for the school. HTH looks like a modern tech company office instead of a high school. It has a lot of open space and the classrooms are modern and inviting.

I was interviewed by a 9th grade math teacher. We covered all the standard interview questions. I told him about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, and why HTH should accept me. This was my first "real-world" interview. HTH was already giving me practical experience and I hadn't been accepted yet. We also talked about my comfort level of going to a school that lacked traditional high school components such as sports teams and AP classes (we didn't have PE my freshmen year because we didn't have the facilities for it).

Today HTH no longer conducts interviews as part of the application process. I cannot recall if my interview was required or optional, but it was very informal. It gave me a chance to ask questions about HTH, visit the school, and for the teacher to meet the student behind the application. It's not much different from a college application process (for example some universities offer an optional interview with an admissions counselor). Overall I felt good after my interview, and the experience solidified my desire to attend the school.

Phase 3 was the lottery. A randomized process that selected a group of about 100 students that became the class of 2005. I remember the day I received my acceptance letter in the mail. Just like a college acceptance letter I had no idea if I would or would not get in. I tore apart the letter and remember feeling tremendous joy and excitement for having been accepted.

That acceptance letter veered my life into a new direction.


3. Four years worth of projects (contents)

When I started at HTH I anticipated spending a lot of time working on projects. What I did not expect was the variety of projects I'd work on. Here are some that stood out:

Freshmen year

Sophomore year

  • Entered the San Diego Science Fair with the Eucalyptus tree project I did through my Biotechnology class.
  • Came up with a business plan and marketing material for a non-profit organization to stand up against gangs.
  • Wrote a mini-novel.
  • Wrote my first resume.

Junior year

  • Marketing internship at Randall Lamb, a mechanical engineering firm.
  • Wrote, directed, and performed in an original play.
  • Created a San Diego public park brochure. Visited the park with my class and my group served as park guides.

Senior year

Throughout my four years I worked on group projects. Individual projects. Artistic/creative projects. And technical projects. Each one had challenges, ups and downs, and valuable takeaways. Each project helped me develop important intangible skills that I wouldn't have developed just reading a textbook.

For example The Ancient Olympics film helped foster my leadership skills. As the leader of my team it was my duty to ensure we released a good product on time. Giving 4 freshmen a camera and multiple class periods to work on a project can have mixed results. I was able to bring our team together and we produced a very entertaining film.

My entrance to the San Diego Science Fair gave me the opportunity to present to the scientific community in a tradeshow like setting. It also exposed me to the world of scientific research and biotechnology. And even though I did not develop a passion for these fields, I gained valuable experience and had fun competing in the Science Fair.

My junior year internship at Randall Lamb gave me first-hand experience on working in the "real-world". It increased my confidence and I got a chance to network with working professionals. My senior year I got to teach a music theory class. I had multiple responsibilities including marketing my course to get students to enroll. Coming up with lessons, homework assignments, projects, and exams.

For my English class I worked on a group project where we conducted a large study on the perception of AP versus standard high school classes. My group came up with the study, survey questions, and organized school visits where we observed and surveyed students in Math and English classes across 5 different schools in San Diego. To say this was a large scale project would be an understatement. It required creativity, accountability (we were four high school seniors that would leave campus un-chaperoned), patience (we were four type A personalities), and resilience.

"Most Likely to Succeed" has a great quote by Larry Rosenstock (HTH CEO) on the feeling students have regarding the family night showcase (an evening where students present their best projects):

I made this and everyone is coming to look at it.

When I worked hard on a project, I was excited to show it. To talk about what I made and what I learned. It's like Seth Godin likes to say, here, I made this. I didn't just learn a fact for a test. I made something that did not exist in the world.

By focusing on projects HTH is creating a culture of makers. Students who get excited about building stuff and are comfortable with failure. Not all projects are homeruns. Some don't come together at the right moment. But HTH's culture is built around trying, embracing (not fearing) failure, and trying again. HTH students are encouraged to be ambitious. To question the status-quo. Sound familiar? Through project-based learning HTH is fostering the same creative culture that is seen in many top Silicon Valley startups.


4. State testing & instructional approaches (contents)

A common criticism against HTH's project-based learning model is that students will not do well on standardized tests. This includes end of the year state tests and college entrance exams (SAT, ACT). I strongly disagree with this criticism. I consider myself an average standardized test taker. I don't struggle, but also don't breeze through them. And yet as my results show HTH equipped me with the knowledge to perform well on these tests:

Freshmen year (Spring 2002)

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Sophomore year (Spring 2003)

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Junior year (Spring 2004)

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Side note: I was curious on the drop in Math during my junior year. I'll blame part of it on a bad testing day, the other was my weakness in Geometry and Stats, which made up 50% of the test:

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Here is a cumulative chart:

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This chart uses "percentile ranks". It shows how I performed compared to a sample of students tested throughout the US. For example, a percentile rank of 50% in reading means I scored as well or better than 50% of students tested in the sample. The CA Reading List number indicates my reading level on a scale of 1-13.

Given HTH's focus on project-based learning, I still retained enough knowledge to be in the top 50% in every subject each year. 58% of the time I was in the top 20%. Could I have done this well or even better had I gone to a traditional high school? I certainly could have. But it would have been at the expense of all the practical, real-world skills I developed at HTH.

How is HTH able to deviate from a traditional textbook based curriculum and still have students score in the top 50%?

I recently read "Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It" by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher argues that schools do not need to teach "to the test" in order for students to do well on standardized tests. He references a study by Judith A. Langer (author, professor, and literacy researcher):

Langer found that schools exhibit three distinct instructional approaches, patterns she has named (1) separated, (2) simulated, and (3) integrated. Separated instruction is the direct instruction of isolated skills, often used to “cover” curriculum. Simulated instruction “involves the application of these concepts and rules within a targeted unit of reading, writing, or oral language” (Langer 2002, 13). This might include, for example, exercises that are often found in packaged teaching materials. Integrated instruction “takes place when students are expected to use their skills and knowledge within the embedded context of a large and purposeful activity,” such as writing a research paper or editing the school newspaper (Langer 2002, 14)

In short, effective schools did not rely heavily on any given approach, often blending all three types of instruction.

Langer’s study, and the many others cited in this chapter, leads to an inescapable conclusion: if students are taught to read and write well, they will do fine on mandated reading tests. But if they are only taught to be test-takers, they will never learn to read and write well. A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.

I have two takeaways from this. First is the value of blending three types of instructional approaches. Second is if students have a solid foundation, they will do fine on standardized tests.

HTH is a blended instructional environment. Most of my classes had a daily lecture that covered a specific curriculum topic. People unfamiliar with the school imagine a textbook free environment where students are working on projects and then reflecting on how they feel about them. The latter certainly happens, but it's not what HTH is solely about. It doesn't happen at the expense of learning. Like a traditional school HTH has tests, mid-terms, final exams, and grades. Some classes (like Math) used textbooks to supplement learning. I had a GPA at the end of every semester.

If you were to walk into a HTH lecture (not knowing anything about the school), you'd think you were in a normal high school (well maybe not quite normal, but kind of). You'd see a teacher lecturing, a white board, and students taking notes. The separated instructional approach Langer described is utilized at HTH. This approach ensured that I gained foundational knowledge (algebra, world war 2, cells, etc.) high school is meant to deliver. It was the reason for my success on the standardized tests I shared above.

Instruction also included a simulated approach. In a Math or Science class this meant doing exercises from textbooks (gasp, textbooks?! Yes, it did make sense to practice with exercises from a textbook in Math class, so we used them). We also had mini-projects on specific curriculum topics, such as writing a one page reflection on a current event topic for Humanities, or investigating a Biotechnology topic through a small team activity. Again this is not far off from what you would see at a traditional high school.

And HTH certainly utilizes an integrated instructional approach. The output of this approach are the projects I highlighted in the previous section of this post. This is the approach that makes HTH standout from other schools. It empowers students to be bold, curious, and to dream big. It creates an environment where it is OK to fail as long as you learned something.

A question often posed to a startup company is what are they best in the world at? The integrated instructional approach is what HTH is best in the world at. I touched on this earlier, but as of 2015 HTH has had 15 years of practice. 15 years of iterating and refining the model to stay current and effective. To experiment and do more of the things that work and less of those that don't.

You may be curious of the percentage breakdown of the three instructional approaches at HTH. My experience was that it changed every week. Some weeks the split was even, 1/3 separated, 1/3 simulated, and 1/3 integrated. Other weeks could be 50% integrated and 50% separated. We weren't restricted to a fixed distribution of approaches. This kept things interesting because each week brought a new learning experience. I couldn't fall into a rhythm that would allow me to mindlessly flow through school, because the instructional approach could drastically change from one week to the next.


5. It's your decision (contents)

During the film viewers are taken inside Marc Aguirre's 9th grade humanities class. It's the first day of school and Marc assigns students a basic task: arrange the tables and chairs based on the drawing on the board. He leaves the room. The following scene is a classroom of kids looking around in bewilderment. You can see them thinking, did he really just leave? Should I speak up? I can't believe he didn't give us step-by-step instructions. What do I do?!

Marc sees the students struggling and steps in. They ask what they should do. You can't blame them, their entire school career has been built on the idea that teachers are gatekeepers. Teachers tell you what to do. They show you the door, open it, hold your hand, and walk you through it. HTH is different. Teachers show you the door, but it's up to the student to open and walk through it. Marc provides some guidance, but ends with three life-changing words:

It's your decision.

These three words encompass what HTH is about. Empowerment. Accountability. Taking risks and being comfortable with the outcome. Transforming students into independent thinkers.

With this exercise and those three words Marc created a "real-world" learning moment. A moment where students practice and learn skills that don't come from a textbook. Skills like creativity, independent thinking, collaboration, and presentation skills. These moments also help develop "intangibles" like confidence, comfort with uncertainty, openness to other perspectives, and leadership.

Although arranging classroom furniture may seem like a trivial task, for those freshmen the exercise began their transformation into independent, confident, and creative students. Remember that most students are coming from traditional school environments. Environments where teachers provide step-by-step directions and don't leave the classroom. Environments where passing the test is of highest importance.

A student will participate in many "real-world" learning moments throughout their four years at HTH. These moments make HTH special. My list of moments included being a leader in countless group projects. Presenting projects in front of my class (or even the school in a few cases). Debating for and against creationism vs. evolution with my classmates. Even small things like setting up our desks to be facing each other, and discussing current events or an article we all read. These moments got me comfortable with listening and interacting with my classmates. To hear and appreciate opposing views. To practice communicating ideas. To build my confidence as a leader.

It's been widely accepted that the jobs of tomorrow will require a different set of skills than those taught at a traditional school. This point was emphasized at the start of the documentary. Anything that can be automated or outsourced to a machine, will be. This leaves a job market where those who are comfortable with uncertainty, with failure, have a willingness to experiment and take risks, will succeed. Those who get really good at taking tests and are dependent on step-by-step instructions from teachers will struggle.

HTH is built on the vision of project-based learning. A vision of producing independent thinkers and global citizens. It achieves this by giving students four years worth of real-world learning moments. And it all starts with three words: it's your decision.


6. Preparation for college (contents)

HTH has impressive statistics when it comes to student college acceptance. Over 90% of my graduating class were accepted to a university. Our acceptance list included top schools like: Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD, and USC.

I attended and graduated from Chapman University, a mid-sized private liberal arts school in Orange County California. I selected the school for two primary reasons: their business program and an academic scholarship I received. For me the transition from HTH to Chapman was seamless. The increased college workload was uncomfortable at first, but it wasn't overwhelming. I adapted and was even able to successfully complete 19 units my second semester of freshmen year.

The skills I picked up at HTH fit nicely into a college classroom. For example at HTH I developed a comfort with speaking up, and I carried this over to Chapman. Whether it's a question or a differing perspective from what the instructor is presenting, I had no reservation to speak my mind. I would also be a frequent attendee of professor's office hours. Having grown accustomed to constant interaction with my teachers at HTH, I sought the same at Chapman. Getting to know my professors served me well throughout college. I not only built strong professional relationships (for things like mentorship and job recommendations) but it also made for a rewarding classroom experience. Professors knew me on a first-name basis and had a vested interest in my success in their class.

If you were to walk into a college freshmen class I believe you'd see a clear difference between a HTH and traditional high-school student. The reason being a difference in educational models. A traditional high-school tends to have a "one-way" communication model. This is especially true in some AP classes. There is so much content to cover in a short amount of time, that the teacher has no time to waste. The goal is to push as much content to students as possible, so they can score high on the AP exam. The idea being that this "trains" students for college workloads, because they will need to process even more content in a shorter amount of time.

HTH has a more fluid and organic model. Communication is "two-way", where it's often back and fourth between instructor and students. It's natural and it flows. It keeps students engaged and an expectation of this is how education should be develops. It's difficult to go back to the one-way model once you've been exposed to the two-way model. The classes I most enjoyed at Chapman were based on the two-way model (and naturally the one-way model classes were my least favorite). I felt as though I had a bit of an advantage in these classes because they were so prominent at HTH. They were an extension of the teaching model I had gotten used to.

Not all members of my graduating class had such a seamless transition to college. Two of my friends attended UC Berkeley and pursued science degrees. At first they were overwhelmed and felt underprepared. While I was in a business classroom of 30-40 students, they were in a 500+ student auditorium listening to a one-way Organic Chemistry lecture. It was like an AP class on steroids. Having not been trained to manage the onslaught of content their grades suffered that first year. But things got better. They adapted to the course load and their grades improved.

They told me that HTH did not prepare them for the first two years of a Science undergraduate degree program. However they did feel HTH gave them an advantage in the latter two years of the program, because the coursework became more practical (e.g. lab work) and less textbook memorization. HTH students enter college with legitimate lab experience (thanks to the Biotechnology lab on campus), and some gained additional experience through their internship. Even though my two friends did not have the same book smarts compared to AP students, they had tangible lab experience that many of their peers did not have.

So did HTH prepare me for college? It did. Do I feel I missed out not having AP classes? I do not. Is this perspective shared by all HTH graduates? It's not. But I believe that attending HTH will not put you at a disadvantage when compared to a traditional high school student. I believe you are at an advantage. The increased workload, one-way lectures, exams, you'll be able to figure those out. It's the intangible skills you'll develop at HTH that will give you an advantage over your peers and make the overall college experience much richer.


7. Things HTH does differently (contents)

In Southern California schools are zoned. This means every zip code has a public high school that serves students living there. If you are unhappy with your designated high school, your only option is to move to a zip code that is covered by the high school you'd like to attend. HTH is a charter school. This means HTH is both state and privately funded. It also means a student can live in any zip code in San Diego and still attend the school. I knew some students who had over hour long commutes (one-way) to get to school. Accepting students from all across San Diego created a diverse (demographically and socioeconomically) student body. It gave me the opportunity to meet and friend people I would have not met otherwise.

When you walk into HTH you don't feel that you've entered a high school. The school is devoid of lockers, bungalows, or other things found in many Southern California schools. The school is one building and feels as though you've evented the office of a top silicon valley startup (a la Facebook). Student projects and artwork are proudly displayed throughout the entire school. Some classes are open fishbowls, while others are more traditional. Every classroom has at least one window (some windows may only face the inner hallways, but the majority have an outside facing window). This may seem like a minor detail, but compared to other schools that have depressing windowless classrooms, HTH creates a comfortable and inspiring learning environment for students.

HTH students give a lot of presentations. I remember in 8th grade I had to give a presentation about my family for Spanish class. It lasted several minutes and I was terrified. At the end of the presentation my friend told me that my hands shook the entire time. It wasn't because I had to give a presentation in Spanish, it was because I had to give a presentation in front of people. By the end of my freshmen year at HTH my hands no longer shook when I gave presentations. I had done so many of them that I started getting used to them. I'd still get nervous, but I had so much practice that my confidence increased after each one.

The student to teacher dynamic is noticeably different from a traditional high school. I recall only a few cases where I had a typical teacher to student relationship. In most cases I was on a first-name basis with my teachers and administrators. I felt that they had a genuine interest in my success as a student. They viewed us as being on a journey together. It wasn't like a conveyer belt model where a teacher gets a group of students, feeds them a bunch of information, sends them to the next grade, gets a new group, and does it all over again. It was about back-and-fourth conversation. About challenging us to not only master the material, but to work on projects so that we grow as students and individuals.

At the end of every trimester/semester we received report cards with our grades. Each teacher would write what we covered in class and a personalized message with things the student did well and areas for improvement. Here is an example from my freshmen year:

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With such transparency I looked at my teachers as mentors. I felt comfortable approaching them if I was struggling with something in class. I felt comfortable challenging them if I had a differing perspective (I got more comfortable speaking up my junior and senior years). HTH teachers made me feel comfortable with the person I was, and challenged me to constantly improve as a student.

HTH does not segment students across classes. There are no honors or AP classes. Everyone takes the same class. Teachers have the flexibility to segment the class as they see fit. For example in my senior year math class, our teacher gave us the option to either take Finance or Calculus. She divided the class in a non-disruptive way. While one group was getting a lecture, the other group worked on exercises or projects.

I was warned before I enrolled at HTH that if high school sports were important to me, HTH would not be a good fit. I was active outside of school so this was not a big deal for me. And I know today things are different (I recently received an invite to attend the HTH's women's volleyball game). But sports were not a priority at HTH when I was a student there.

All students are required to do an internship their junior year. This is huge. Some college graduates don't even have internship experience. And there I was, a junior in high school getting legitimate work experience. My internship at Randall Lamb took place twice a week (half-days), and lasted a semester. That's quite a bit of foregone instructional time, but as my state testing scores indicate it had no adverse impact on my education.

My internship, like all at HTH was randomly assigned. But I got to pick the department for my internship (I chose Marketing). I was paired with a mentor and she assigned various projects for me to work on. At the end of the internship we had a "demo evening" at school. All interns setup a booth (think trade show) and shared what they worked on at their internship. This is an open to the public event so our audience included parents, classmates, friends, and business professionals from the community.

A group of interns were selected to share a story from their internship with all attendees. After opening remarks from Gary Jacobs (the schools co-founder) I got to share my story with the community. Here is the video of my booth and presentation. As I watch the video I'm reminded how much I transformed as a speaker and presenter at HTH. Earlier I talked about my hand shaking experience as an 8th grader presenting in front of my Spanish class. Thanks to experiences like this one, HTH helped me replace those nerves with confidence.


8. The goal of school (contents)

During my freshmen year I had a classmate (I'll call him Joe) in my physics class. Joe fit the stereotype of skater/punk dude who wasn't excited about school. He would turn in his homework late (or just not do it), wouldn't answer questions when called upon, and was most likely to be called out by the teacher for talking during a lecture. I'm sure most of us remember a student like Joe from high school.

An interesting thing happened in that physics class. Our teacher introduced us to programming in Flash . Our project was to take the principals we were learning in class, and create a fully functioning video game using Flash. Our only constraint was we had to apply physics concepts we were learning into the game. The project was open ended and the game could be as elaborate as we wanted.

Guess who produced the most elaborate and epic game in the class? Joe.

The lectures, homework, exams, these things didn't inspire Joe. I shared other classes with him (Math, English, Humanities) and the same attitude carried across them. But something about building this game struck a nerve and inspired him. He could use his innate creativity, and apply his technical prowess (turns out he was learning the physics concepts) to make something he dreamed up.

Not only was he building something tangible (instead of doing throwaway worksheet homework exercises), he was building something he wanted to exist. While most of us worked in pairs, Joe worked solo. While most of us were at lunch, Joe was working on his game. Before class, after class, Joe was building. He was making the game more elaborate with more levels and better graphics. My partner and I were good students. We did well on exams and turned in our homework on time. Our game at most reached 20% of the "impressiveness" that Joe's game reached. Before the game I'd describe Joe as lazy, disruptive, and not a good student. After the game I changed my adjectives to hard-working, talented, and inspiring,

I share this story because I believe it's a perfect example that supports my theory on the goal of school: to expose kids to as many subjects/topics/concepts as possible and give them an opportunity to apply them. The aphorism "you don't know what you don't know" sums up the problem schools can solve. By exposing kids to a wide variety of subjects and content, we not only develop well-rounded students, but we give them a chance to discover passions they may not have known they had.

Tim Ferriss, a world-famous author and startup investor has an excellent podcast where he interviews top-performers in their respective fields. One of the questions he asks most guests is: when you hear the word successful, who is the first person that comes to mind? For me, it's anyone who has discovered their passion. A person who has found that one thing they must get better at (sport, instrument, dance, etc.) or create (book, song, company, etc.). And when they are working on it, nothing else matters. It's like finding the book you can't put down. You can't wait to get to the next page. Money and success becomes a byproduct. Even if you get neither, you are still satisfied with what it is you are working on, because it's your passion.

In order for kids to discover their passions, they need to be exposed to a wide-range of topics, and given the opportunity to apply them. Just like Joe's discovery of building games in Flash in 9th grade physics. If not during school, when will kids have such an opportunity? School is a low-stakes environment. It's an ideal place to experiment. What's the worst that can happen? Your project didn't work but you learned a ton. You don't have a mortgage or a family to support. All you have is a limited amount of time to just try stuff. HTH fosters such an environment so students can build games. Write and act in a play. Be part of teams. Film movies. Do internships. Work with circuits. Work with plants. Find their passions.

So should all high schools get rid of textbooks, school bells, and model themselves after HTH? I'm a realist and I know this can't happen. But I believe all schools in the US can learn and apply some of the principals that make HTH a great school. For example putting a greater emphasis on student projects over test scores is a great first step. Empowering students to drive classroom discussions and giving them more opportunities to practice being leaders and independent thinkers. Giving kids more opportunities to apply the things they are learning in creative ways. Remember the three words: it's your decision. It starts with teachers empowering their students, and getting their administrators to welcome such approaches to education.

Today our education system is based on an assembly line formula. It definitely scaled, and worked for a certain period. And yet so many teachers strive to go beyond the assembly line formula. They do things in their classrooms that do not scale. They go above and beyond what their job descriptions entail so their students can succeed. They motivate and inspire students, push them to look beyond a test score. HTH is a school filled with such teachers. It's about doing things that are difficult to standardize and scale. The focus is on students and what they learn from the projects they work on, not their test scores. To borrow from the documentary, education is about people, it should be organic, not robotic. Students are not machines, and the assembly line formula is no longer viable in the 21st century. Students need to be inspired, challenged, and driven in ways beyond a GPA or a score on a test.

Many have debated and fantasized about what a school of the future could be like. Gone would be the assembly line formula. It would be replaced by projects, independent thinking, and development of skills for jobs in the 21st century. This is what the future may hold if we rethought and redid our educational system. And yet 15 years ago a charter school opened it's doors in San Diego California. With a bold vision it deviated from the standard public education model. And with every graduating class it adds validation that their model is working. As a proud graduate I can tell you that the future of school is already here, it's called High Tech High.


9. Further reading (contents)

Seth Godin (author, entrepreneur, marketer, thought-leader) wrote a manifesto "Stop Stealing Dreams" in 2012. His intent was to answer one question: what is school for? It's inspiring and a great read. I encourage you to check it out! I found many of my experiences at HTH fell in line with Seth's ideas and vision for the future of education.

Kobe is selfish. Kobe took too much money. Kobe isn't a leader. Superstars don't want to come to LA because they don't want to play with Kobe. These are the never-ending criticisms in the NBA world against Kobe Bryant.

Many of these criticisms resurfaced in Baxter Holmes's recent article on ESPN: Lakers From The Outside: The Kobe issue. I've been hearing and reading these Kobe criticisms since the Lakers resigned him for two-years and I've had enough.

I'd like to present an alternative (albeit biased) perspective with the goal of debunking the various criticisms surrounding Kobe, his leadership style, and his impact on the future of the franchise.

Disclaimer 1: This isn't an attack on Baxter. He's a great follow on Twitter and I really enjoyed his appearance on the Lowe Post. My problem was with the criticisms raised by the 24 anonymous league insiders that were interviewed for Baxter's article.

Disclaimer 2: I'm an NBA enthusiast. If I see a tweet that reads "Curry heat check", I drop everything I'm doing and turn on the TV. I get excited when the Wizards play the Suns because of Bledsoe vs Wall. Some of my favorite players include Paul Millsap, Kawhi Leonard, Al Jefferson, Kyle Korver, and Russell Westbrook. But at the top of the list is Kobe Bryant. And because I'm from LA, the Lakers are my favorite team. So tweets like this from infamous "Laker Hater" Arash Markazi really annoy me. [1] You may not like Kobe, but you cannot deny his greatness. He has reached the pinnacle of his trade. How many of us can say the same in our respective fields? It's much easier to criticize, but I urge you to take a step back and see what you can learn.

Disclaimer 3: I spoke to zero NBA insiders about this topic. This is just my analysis and opinion based on a slew of content I've consumed on Kobe, the Lakers, and the NBA.


Criticism 1: Kobe wont accept a backseat to anyone, AKA Lakers can't get a marquee free agent, AKA superstars don't want to play with Kobe.

From Baxter's post:

Many insiders doubt Bryant will take a backseat to anyone, let alone young players. "That's why I wouldn't want him on the team," one executive said, "because I don't think he'd accept that role."

And let me throw in the now famous Nelly First Take debate:

Some people argue him as the top 3 player of all time, how do you not want to play with a top 3 player of all time?

OK, let's take a look at the last two years and see who would have had a chance to play with Kobe, but decided not to.

Big free agents 2015:

  1. LaMarcus Aldridge
  2. DeAndre Jordan
  3. Kevin Love
  4. Marc Gasol
  5. Jimmy Butler

2014:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Carmelo Anthony
  3. Chris Bosh
  4. Eric Bledsoe
  5. Dwayne Wade
  6. Dirk Nowitzki
  7. Tim Duncan

Looking at both lists, I'd argue the Lakers had a legitimate shot at signing Aldridge, Anthony, or Bosh (if you think the Lakers had a legitimate chance to sign Tim Duncan or LeBron James, stop reading). [2]

With Aldridge they botched up the first meeting but were given a second chance. The fact that the Lakers had just come off the worst season in franchise history, Kobe was injured, and LaMarcus still took the second meeting speaks volumes. The problem for Kobe and the Lakers was competing with arguably the best run organization in the NBA: the do-no-wrong San Antonio Spurs. LaMarcus is also from Texas. Did the Lakers really have a chance? If it was LeBron James on the Lakers instead of Kobe, would LaMarcus have signed with the Lakers instead? Debatable. But I'd argue he would have still picked the Spurs.

Carmelo came close. But playing with Kobe Bryant was not the reason he did not choose LA. Same thing with Chris Bosh. Ultimately these players picked opportunities that they felt were better suited for them. I have a hard time believing that their reasoning went something like: well, I could go to LA, but I would have to take a back seat to Kobe, so no, I won't go to LA. Both players ended up staying put. What does that say about the other teams they considered? So maybe Bosh didn't go to the Rockets because he didn't want to take a backseat to James Harden?

Kevin Durant had a famous quote last year on the topic of playing with Kobe:

I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day. (His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff.

Chris Paul was excited to play with Kobe. That was until David Stern nixed the trade. Think of how different the conversation would be about Kobe if Stern didn't give in to Dan Gilbert's travesty letter and did not veto the Chris Paul trade. [3]

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Let's transition to the US Men's Olympic Basketball. Specifically two teams.

Take a look at the 2004 team. And then the 2008.

One team has Kobe. And that team is wearing gold medals.

Was Kobe the sole reason for the success of the 2008 team? He was not. But he was a damn important piece. I don't know how much I like the US's chances in the greatest Olympic basketball final ever if Kobe wasn't playing.

I think the players on that team would agree. How many players dropped out of the 2008 team when they found out Kobe was on the team? How many were grateful to be playing with him? Even take a "backseat" to him. I'd argue all of them.

I took a look at the average assists per game (2008 Olympics) for some of the players in the photo above:

  1. Chris Paul: 4.1
  2. LeBron James: 3.8
  3. Jason Kidd: 2.0
  4. Dwyane Wade: 1.9
  5. Carmelo Anthony: 0.4
  6. Chris Bosh: 0.3

Where do you think Kobe falls? Based on the criticism you would think he averaged around -0.7 assists.

He had 2.1.

Sure, he isn't the willing passer that LeBron James is. But he certainly isn't in the extreme of not willing to take a backseat to anybody.

To wrap this criticism up I'd like to make the point that Kobe is pragmatic and he is probably smarter than you. He will do what makes sense to win. Sure he has his 24 second moments [4] that sometimes don't end well.

But he also has the ones that do.

And my personal favorite:


Criticism 2: Kobe isn't a leader, mentor, good teammate, an asshole...

I urge you to watch this BET Kobe unplugged interview. If this doesn't change your perspective on Kobe, I don't know what will. [5]

At 18:45 in the video Jemele Hill flat-out asks Kobe if he is an asshole. Kobe responds:

...teammates I've had in the past, all our guys, (Ronnie Turiaf, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher) if you ask them they will say no, he is not an asshole. But to the other guys, who show up to practice an hour later, you know them, they are easily identifiable. Those guys will say yeah, he's an asshole...

You know who else was considered an asshole? Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Elon Musk. These guys have made people cry. But they have also pushed people to create the best work of their careers and products that have changed the world.

This is a fascinating topic. How hard do you push to retrieve excellence? [6] Steve Jobs had a famous quote about A players wanting to work with other A players. But if an A player is pushing a B, C or D player to care/behave on an A players level, well that B, C, or D player is going to feel the A player is an asshole.

On the topic of mentorship. Consider the last few years. Kobe was a mentor to Wesley Johnson (who he envisioned being the Pippen to his Michael), Jeremy Lin, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar. That is just the younger players. It has been well documented how much vets like Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace have picked up from Bryant. Even players from competing teams credit Kobe with being a mentor. Kobe is a student of the game. He feels it is his duty to pass along the knowledge he has acquired to the next generation of players.

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Check out this example from the documentary "Road to Redemption" about the 2008 Olympic team. Jerry Colangelo, the team's Managing Director recalls a moment from the first practice:

The very first play of the very first scrimmage there is a loose ball and there is Kobe Bryant diving on the floor. That set the tone.

Kobe's style isn't for everybody.

This moment from the first Laker practice scrimmage of the 2015 season sums him up. While Kobe's man brings the ball up the floor, Kobe surveys the scene and yells at Lou Williams:

Press up Lou, get up there Lou!

Think about this for a moment. This. is. a. practice. scrimmage. [7] The ball hasn't even crossed half-court. And Kobe is instructing a 10 year vet, not a rookie, a 10 year vet, to press up. Kobe closes out his man, who then makes a bad pass because he didn't have an escape because Lou Williams pressed up. Like a master chess player Kobe was thinking several moves ahead.

Like Steve Jobs who was famous for demanding perfection for the inside and outside components of Apple products - Kobe has a maniacal drive for excellence. In the book "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, Steve had this vision for the Macintosh:

I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it's inside the box. A great carpenter isn't going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody's going to see it.

In terms of an 82 game season that scrimmage is meaningless. Yet Kobe set a tone that on his team, every possession matters, every possession is an opportunity to get better.

At some point each of us needs to decide how hard to push ourselves and others to achieve excellence. Some people may look at that scrimmage moment and think Kobe needs to ease off. It's just one play in practice. Relax. These are the same people that would call Kobe an asshole. Think about Kobe's intentions in that moment. He isn't trying to show up Lou Williams or embarrass him. He is being a leader. He is setting a tone. He is instilling a habit of excellence and kindling a competitive fire.

Kobe will push hard. And you know who he respects? The teammates that push back. I vividly remember a game from last season. Halloween night at Staples Center and the Clippers were in town. Kobe had been mentoring and pushing Jeremy Lin hard up to that point in the season. There was a moment in the first half where Jeremy took the ball across court, and Kobe ran up to him expecting to get the ball. I smiled as I saw Jeremy waive him off. He was stepping up: I got this Kobe, let me set the offense.

Kobe respects confidence. If he knows you are confident, he will trust you. He will get you the ball. But you have to show him. You have to earn it.

In his documentary Muse, Kobe talks about his mentality for the 2009 NBA season after loosing to the Celtics in the 2008 finals:

I overcompensated for how I drove my teammates. I was thinking maybe I was too hard on them, so throughout the course of the year I didn't challenge them enough. It was just not being as gregarious, put my arm around you even when you fuck up, you're doing great, you're doing great. That's just not me. If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down leading my way. This team is going to have my personality, my grit, my fight, my will, my competitive spirit. So when we step on that basketball court you aren't just facing me, my competitive fire, but you are facing 12 of those.

This is Kobe. This is his way of leading. There is no award for participation in Kobe's world. No award for showing up. At a town hall with Bill Clinton Kobe lamented at the disservice we do to our kids by giving out participation awards. He firmly believes that the spirit of competition is something healthy and fun. And that there will be a winner and a loser.

Kobe has five NBA championships. Are you going to argue that he is not a leader? You do not get to five championships by not being a leader. His style may make you uncomfortable. It may make you resent him. It may even expose you. And if it does, you probably wont last long as his teammate or coach.


Criticism 3: Kobe took too much money which hindered the Lakers from signing a max player.

It seems that the commonly held belief is the contract negotiation between Mitch, Jim, and Kobe went something like this: [8]

Mitch: Mr. Bryant, words cannot express how grateful we are for your...

Jim: Yeah yeah, so here is the deal Kobe. I promised the organization that we will be contending for a championship in the next two years or else I'll step down from my position. I was just kidding when I said it but looks like I'm being held to it by my sister.

Kobe: Mhhm...

Jim: I wont be stepping down.

Kobe: Mhhm...

Mitch: Mr. Bryant, what I think Jim is trying to say is that there comes a time when...

Jim: We need you to take a drastic pay cut. Mitch has a plan.

Kobe: What's the plan?

Mitch: Well, with all due respect, we haven't seen you play since your injury and...

Jim: We need you to take the veterans minimum.

Mitch: This would give us enough room to possibly sign 2 superstars and 2 key role players.

Kobe: No. I won't take less than 2 years, $48.5 million.

Mitch & Jim: :O

Mitch:But, but Mr. Bryant, that won't give us the flexibility to...

Kobe:I don't want to hear it. I want to use up all of our cap space and sabotage any possible chance of us winning a championship because we can't sign any free agents.

-

I don't think the discussion went quite like that.

As mentioned earlier Kobe is very pragmatic. And Mitch has a proven track-record of having a plan A, B, and C. Kobe trusts him. Therefore I think the negotiation went something like this:

Mitch: Kobe, we have a plan.

Jim: We want you to be a Laker for life.

Mitch: We'd like to offer you a 2 year, $48.5 million contract.

Kobe: Are you sure? Won't that hinder us from being able to acquire free agents?

Mitch: We have run the number extensively. Based on the available free agents, and our various calculations, we know that we can offer you this contract and still be able to sign key free agents to support you.

Jim: We stand by this offer. I made a promise that we will be contending for the title in the next few years, and this offer does not hamper that promise.

Kobe: Are you sure? I'll take less if needed.

Jim:It's not necessary. This contract is also a reflection of how grateful the Laker organization is for your past service.

Kobe: Where do I sign? #Laker4Life

Btw lakers have max cap space and then some #mitchissharp #bussfamsharp #lakers

— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) November 27, 2013


Criticism 4: Lakers need to get rid of Kobe by whatever means necessary

This is a really brilliant idea (insert face palm).

From Baxter's article:

I can't believe players are saying, 'I can't wait to play with Kobe Bryant,'" one executive said. "They want to play with Anthony Davis, they may want to play with Stephen Curry, they may want to play with Kevin Durant, and maybe LeBron can entice people because he's the best player in the world. But Kobe can't bring anybody there.

Davis, Curry, and Durant are MVP-caliber players in the prime of their careers. [9] But you know who those guys would want to play with? Kobe Bryant.

You know why the Staples Center is sold out when the Lakers are playing?

Kobe Bryant.

You know why the road crowds chant MVP and sell out arenas when the Lakers are in town?

Kobe Bryant.

This guy is one of the most beloved active players in professional sports, and your recommendation is to get rid of him?

He only played 35 games last season, but still had the third best selling jersey during the season.

And we have to put an end to this notion that the Lakers are somehow better off when Kobe isn't playing. The numbers don't support this.

Last season was the worst in franchise history with the team winning 21 games. Kobe played in 35 games over the season. Coming back from traumatic injuries he didn't look 100% in some of those games. And yet out of the 21 games the Lakers won, 10 of those were when Kobe was playing. The numbers don't sway my point in one direction or another, but out of the games the Lakers won last season, 50% were won when Kobe was playing. The "Lakers are better off with Kobe" group drive the point like 80% or more of the games the Lakers win are when Kobe is off the floor.

And from a practical perspective, Kobe is still drawing double teams. If he trusts you he will get you the ball. He draws a lot of attention and this gives the other guys on the floor to knock down shots. [10]

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This is Kobe's 20th NBA season with the Lakers. The longest any NBA player has been with one team. Add in all the playoff games and you may have two more seasons. Point being is only one other active NBA player has the experience and resume that Kobe has (Tim Duncan).

The Lakers are placing a bet on their young talent. Would you rather the young guns be mentored by vets who haven't reached a conference final, or one of the greatest Lakers of all time?

One thing that gets overlooked is Kobe's focus, confidence, and mental toughness:

The dude doesn't flinch:

Out of all of Kobe's basketball talents: footwork, jump shot, defense, spacing, knowledge of the game, his mental toughness is his greatest asset.

One of my favorite parts of the NBA is watching the playoffs when elite defensive players get in the heads of superstars. Nobody does this better than Tony Allen. Ask Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. And yet hear Tony Allen send some very high praise toward Kobe.

Now wouldn't you want the young talent on your team to soak up as much knowledge on mental toughness as they can? Because when it comes to the playoffs, there will always be a Tony Allen who will find a way to get in their heads. And yet if they have the ability to focus, control their emotions, and let the game flow naturally, they may find themselves reaching a peak shared only by NBA champions.

As much as he may be just a regular what you see is what you get guy. [11] When Kobe steps on the basketball court the transformation into the Black Mamba takes place. Say what you like about his mannerisms and personality on the court, but as Kobe eloquently stated:

Friends can come and go, but banners hang forever.

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Thanks for the inspiration, memories, and teachings Kobe. I can't wait to see what you do this season!


Notes

[1] Arash, I'll work on a 24 seconds of Clippers gif from their 2015 playoff series with the Rockets. (I'm sorry Clipper fans, I was mad that they knocked out the Spurs and then disintegrated in the next round, Magic Johnson's tweet summed it up. But I'll admit, for those 3 games everything went right for Houston, and everything went wrong for the Clippers). (Back)

[2] Kevin Love was a 50/50. I believe he feels he has some unfinished business in Cleveland. Plus, he just got his first taste of the playoffs and why would he want to come to the West when he pretty much has a straight shot to the finals in the East. This wasn't about not wanting to play with Kobe and wanting to play with LeBron instead (the latter relationship has had some well documented turmoil). It was about the place he feels he has the best chance to win now. (Back)

[3] But hey, it's not a travesty that the Cavs get three (not one, not two, three) first overall picks in the last five drafts AND get LeBron to come home. (Yes, I'm very bitter about Gilbert's letter because the Lakers got screwed big time for playing by the rules). (Back)

[4] For the second bucket, how SICK was that no look bounce pass by Nash. Perfectly executed. (Back)

[5] OK, so realistically unless you are a big Kobe fan, you are not going to watch a 45 minute fireside chat with him. But this interview not only shines a light on who Kobe is off the basketball court, but it shows that he is a very introspective and reflective individual. This is one of those interviews that even if you are not a basketball/Laker/Kobe fan, you can still take a lot away from because he shares insights that can be applied to any profession. (Back)

[6] Shouldn't be a surprise that Kobe can relate to J.K. Simmons's character in Whiplash. (Back)

[7] We talkin' about practice. (No NBA related article is complete without this clip). (Back)

[8] More accurately it was probably between some lawyer, Mitch, Jim, and Kobe's agent, but to make this more fun I'm going with Kobe, Mitch, and Jim. (Back)

[9] The scary thing is Anthony Davis hasn't even hit his prime yet. He is just getting started. (Back)

[10] This is why Bryant held Derek Fisher in such high regard. Derek had the uncanny ability to come through with a big shot when needed. (Back)

[11] He described himself this way in the BET interview. (Back)