Savoring the Lay of the Land and the Sidewalk Ballet

Figure 1: Atlanta, at Dusk. Photo Credit: Aretina Hamilton

Figure 1: Atlanta, at Dusk. Photo Credit: Aretina Hamilton

I have always loved walking around the city.  When I was a child, my parents would take me to shop at Stewarts Department Store in downtown Louisville.  From there we would make the one block trek to the local drug store for an ice cream float.  We would sit in front of the picture window and watch as masses of people walked by, some engaged in laughter.  Others walked in silence, lost in their thoughts. Yet they moved in unison and embodied Jane Jacobs's “sidewalk ballet”.  It was both a spectacle and an informative moment, as I began to understand that the city was an ecosystem which held multiple parts that made it run effectively.   When I was old enough to go downtown unaccompanied, I would spend the entire day outside, discovering my neighborhood and the city at large.  I spent my outside hours immersed in the geography of the city.  My day would start with a trip to the public library downtown or a trip to the Museum of Natural History and Science.  At the end of my day, I would walk along Main Street, where rows of Corinthian column-clad, cast-iron storefronts towered over me.

On those days when I stayed in my neighborhood, I would spend hours outside taking pictures or making note of the different types of houses I found: craftsman bungalows, Queen Anns, Tudors, Italian Villas, Georgian Revivals and shotguns.  From my neighborhood to the central business district, all of these places represented a different era and historical marker in the trajectory of my city.  They served as an archive of the city's thoughts, histories and ways of being.  As a child the city opened up my curiosities and provided me with a space outside of the traditional classroom that curated my intellectual curiosity. While I couldn’t comprehend how influential these moments would be in my life, they shaped my interests in planning, geography and urbanization.  They provided me with a real world perspective that could not be replicated in a classroom.classroom.

"Ponce City Market" Photo by Aretina Hamilton

"Ponce City Market" Photo by Aretina Hamilton

At Lab Atlanta, we believe that students need to engage actively with the city. It's okay to step outside. It’s okay to wander and ponder new ideas.  It’s okay to travel outside of your comfort zone.  This is part of the process of engagement and cultivating involved citizens.  Geographers often talk about the development of a place-based identity. Atlantans understand this all too well. We are inherently shaped by this place that we call home and therefore have the responsibility to create a city that we are proud of. This can only happen through education, experience, and exposure.

--Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta faculty


“Today was another moving day,” said Founding Director Laura Deisley to conclude our first week of building the Lab Atlanta program. Our exciting goal of transforming students’ experience of both learning and the city is an emotional journey towards educational innovation. However, this is not what Laura implied. Instead, she meant that today was another day of forward motion: one more student enrolled, one more official partnership in the city, and one more day of faculty team bonding toward a visionary program for the future of learning in Atlanta.

Let’s take a moment to introduce our LAB ATL team and meet Agnès, Aretina, Karl, Laura, and Mike. Our personal and professional backgrounds make us a very diverse, experienced group of educators; however, we all share a passion for deep learning and experiential engagement. We are fired up by words like ‘immersion’, ‘leadership’, ‘community’, ‘relationship’, and ‘design’, especially when they apply to students and their learning experiences. It is a thrilling experience to start a semester program with like-minded people who embrace the same educational ideals for the next generations of leaders and innovators! Our differences in leadership styles make our team even stronger: while some of us incline more toward Strategic Thinking or Relationship Building, others are more natural Influencers or Executors. We can’t wait to uncover the leadership skills of our young Lab Atlanta learners, to find out how their strengths and abilities can make a positive difference in their community and inspire others to take action.

In order to reach our exciting goals, we have been hard at work for the past week; brainstorming, deconstructing, and reinventing have been our daily tasks. We have written target goals and listed skills that will thrill any teenager who wants to learn more--and more actively--than the traditional school setting can offer. Our team is still wrestling with lots of content and ideas, has many tasks to accomplish, and multiple goals to draft, but the mission and values of LAB ATL become more elegant almost by the hour.

To advise, guide, and support us along the way, crème de la crème partners in the fields of education, leadership, and diversity will accompany us throughout our semester planning. Jaimie Cloud from The Cloud Institute was instrumental in helping us organize and define the first days of LAB ATL: How will we implement our big ideas and skills? How will the students be transformed when they end their semester with us? Jaimie thinks big and fast; engaging in a discussion on teenagers and learning with her is liberating, even electrifying. Instructional Coach and curriculum designer Diana Laufenberg of Inquiry Schools, our next big professional consultant, will likely rock our world just as much. Meanwhile, we’ll be sure to keep this forward motion going and make every day all fall a moving day!


Atlanta Beltline creator--and urban planner and designer--Ryan Gravel has recently published his wonderful new book: Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities. The book is multi-faceted and covers lots of ground. One of its fine chapters explores the concept of "expandable visions," citing an extensive excerpt (on p. 126) by famous Chicago city planner, Daniel Burnham:

"Make no little plans. They have not magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our [children] and [grandchildren] are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."

Like Burnham, Gravel, and his ambitious Atlanta Beltline, Lab Atlanta also thinks big, and makes no little plans. Our core faculty for Lab Atlanta's inaugural year has been assembled, and is posted under the "Who We Are" link on the Lab Atlanta website. We are currently enrolling our first cohort of students, and will continue to offer admission to additional qualified applicants on a rolling basis over the next several months. Then, in January 2017, we will open our school doors in Midtown for our initial semester next spring.

Our vision for Lab Atlanta shares much in common with the premise of Gravel's Georgia Tech thesis that originally envisioned the Beltline. So perhaps it is fitting to quote Gravel again (from p. 88), in reflecting on how and why the Atlanta Beltline emerged so successfully from the germ of his "curious and unassuming" scholarly exercise:

...our success so far makes a powerful case for academic environments everywhere to be nurseries for ideas about the future. Unrestrained by budgets, politics, physics, or technology, students are empowered to be inventive and to develop big ideas that solve real problems. They are free to make proposals without knowing all the answers; actually, not knowing is a key to their strength because they are able to imagine things that many of us rarely see anymore....In fact, there may be no better place to take risks, develop ideas, or articulate a larger ambition for our lives or for the world.

Amen, Mr. Gravel! Amen....

Lab Atlanta Applications and College Admissions Synergies

Prospective Lab Atlanta students are currently completing their online applications for our Spring 2017 Semester. The Priority Application Deadline for this round is Monday, February 15, 2016.

Our Lab Atlanta application requires some writing from each student in response to a few different prompts. Interestingly, our prompts are similar in many ways to those posed on the Common Application Essays that many colleges currently use. The 4th of the Common App’s five options is perhaps the closest to one of the Lab Atlanta prompts: 4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

But these coincidences are just another indication of how and why the Lab Atlanta experience will prepare our students well for higher education as well as life. The Lab Atlanta curriculum will feature creative problem-solving--based on creative problem-finding and uncovering real-world challenges or unsolved issues, in the first place.

Our students will learn--and practice daily--design thinking, and even “design doing.” Building empathy and solving real-life problems through a human-centered lens will be central to our Lab Atlanta curricula. Whether approaching these challenges through more of a STEM-centric or sociological perspective, engaging with real-world problems that the students choose to solve will be central to their learning that semester.