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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E17: Never Forget — Lessons America’s Education Debates Can Learn from Germany

Diane Tavenner
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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

Having returned from Germany, Diane Tavenner shares what she learned about how Germany remembers the Holocaust and what it teaches its children about it so that it does not repeat its past. Tavenner and Michael Horn reflect on how the way Germany approaches the conversation could offer a new starting point to help America move past its polarizing conversations about teaching race and racism.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane.

Tavenner: Michael, I’m excited to hear what you’ve been up to because I’ve been recovering from COVID, so a lot of rest and isolation for me.

Horn: I’m feeling really badly for you, I will say upfront Diane, but I will tell you on the other side of it, we’re coming off a lot of celebrations over here. The eight days of Passover, Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, Easter and more. So as the flowers finally are poking through here and spring is in force, I will say we’re in a pretty jubilant mood, but I think both the Passover story and Patriots’ Day actually have some linkages to what we might want to discuss today.

Tavenner: Well, I agree with you Michael, and I’m thrilled that you had a really great celebratory period of time there with your family. There’s two aspects to our podcast that I have really appreciated and the first is that we follow our own curiosity. The second is that we seek hopeful third wave solutions to what are oftentimes highly polarized and politicized issues in education.

Horn: Absolutely Diane, and those two reasons are at the heart of our conversations on Class Disrupted. Today we’re going to live those values to their fullest because you were able recently to visit your son in Germany and spend a good amount of time in and throughout the country. And in reading and hearing some of your reflections, it became clear to both of us that many of the current hot topic conversations in US education circles might benefit really from examining the experiences and actions in Germany. And I’m fascinated by what you’ve been sharing with me behind the scenes so I’m really looking forward to diving in deeper today with a bunch of questions, frankly, that I have for you. But before we go there, why don’t you frame up the general direction that we’re going to head today on the show?

Tavenner: I’d be happy to, Michael. As you know, I started writing and sharing reflections during my trip, as honestly a way to make sense of what I was learning, it was like this overwhelming amount of learning. I’m grateful to have you as a partner in learning process. And I guess a simple way to summarize is that since January 2021, 42 states — and that number was shocking even to me, Michael — 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would in some way restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism.

In many cases, these are bills that are prohibiting the teaching of divisive concepts, so this really broad definition. In essence, America’s having a very heated debate, and I say America broadly because we’re talking 42 states here, a very heated debate about how we’re going to talk about and educate our children on a significant aspect of our country. What I experienced in Germany was a country that had decided upon and is enacting a way to talk about and teach their children about an equally significant aspect of their country, in history.

Horn: I’m sure we’re not going to be able to cover all of what you learned in the conversations, but I think it’s relevant because I’ve just… I’ll speak for you as well, we’ve both been struck by just how politicized this conversation, these conversations really have become in the United States, and how intractable it’s felt on both sides, frankly. I’m really excited to take a fresh and thoughtful look at what we perhaps could be discussing and considering in an alternate universe. With that as a framing, let’s jump in with some of what you experienced in Germany, Diane, that made you first begin to make some connections to those conversations around race and education, and what is and isn’t allowed in school here in the US.

Tavenner: Great, Michael. I think a good place to start is before I even arrived in Germany. Whenever I visit a new country, I always spend some time in advance reading and learning about the history and the culture. To be honest, I found myself thinking somewhat singularly about Germany as the country, that birthed the Nazis and perpetrated the murder of 6 million Jews and, through their actions in World War II, an estimated 50 million more people and potentially even more. After all, it wasn’t that long ago really, when you think about it, and I just found myself wondering how a country moves beyond such a history. One of my early and consistent observations was that in the country, they are moving on by doing two things, really. One, committing to never forget, and two, taking responsibility for never letting it happen again.

And they seem to have a pretty consistent and coherent approach to doing these two things. They are choosing to never forget by incorporating reminders of what happened throughout the country and weaving them into the day to day experiences of people. One example of this is throughout the country we found gold plated cobblestones, marking the sites where Jews lived before they were forcibly removed from their homes. And these bricks include the name of the victim, what is known about them, when they were born, when they died and where. And there are impeccable records in this country, and so most of them include this. These stones are literally everywhere, Michael, we encountered them at the entrance of stores and restaurants, and current houses, and in front of landmarks and museums. When we talked with people about them, they expressed that one of the things they want to do in Germany is to remember and honor the victims.

This is in contrast to how they have chosen to remember the countless sites and people who are associated with the Nazis. For example, in Munich where the Nazi party first formed and was headquartered, there were two large buildings that housed their government, including the offices of Hitler. And unlike so much of Germany, these buildings actually survived the massive bombings by the allies because Hitler had them elaborately camouflaged to protect them. And in this case, the government post that era, had the buildings razed, they’ve planted over the land to make it look like a field and they have prohibited the spaces from being built upon or marked with any sort of placards or anything that would allow the remembrance of the Nazi party. And this last bit is really important.

Throughout the country we discovered this overriding philosophy, which is to lift up the victims and people who fought against the Nazis, and to diminish the Nazis themselves. There’s a strong emphasis put on not creating monuments or places where Nazi sympathizers can go to honor or celebrate the perpetrators. And in fact, it’s illegal to do so. This is put in balance with the never-let-it-happen-again. At the time of our visit, the particular site in Munich had a semi-permanent art installation of bright life raft preservers and caution tape, the message there is really clear. And that is just one example. There were countless, including the fact that the location where Hitler killed himself is truly a nondescript parking lot for an apartment building. And by design, there’s no marker on the exact spot, no ability for people to actually gather or anyway revise what is a really clear and consistent story about Hitler in the country at this point, and that is that he was truly evil.

Horn: Diane, I’m so struck by the clarity with which you just explained the principles and the lack of ambiguity in them. And I’ll just say, I come to this conversation as an American Jew who was in middle school when the US Holocaust Museum opened. I actually played piano at the opening of the US Holocaust Museum. And the phrase never forget is one emblazoned in my mind, but it’s also one I’ll say I didn’t realize Germany had adopted until you told me that just now. I also think it’s interesting that they’ve chosen to raze the offices of Hitler and things like that. And yet I will say, I also find it interesting that you still learned where these historically important locations were, so I guess they haven’t been erased and that strikes me as important and part of the never-forgetting. And I wonder how that might evolve over time.

But I guess all of that leads me to another thing, which is reflecting back on how I learned about the Holocaust in school. Diane, as I understand it, and unsurprisingly for you, you encountered a number of school groups while visiting museums around the country, so I’m curious if you’d share a little bit about that?

Tavenner: Yeah Michael, I’m happy to. I started noticing that every site we visited that was designed to document and teach about what the Nazis did, there were groups of students there. I got really curious, and you know me, I started talking with people about this. And what I learned was that Germany has mandated that every single child will learn about the Nazis and the history of their country. There is a nationally mandated curriculum that includes requirements that every child will visit a number and specific types of sites. We encountered groups in Berlin at the former site of the SS Headquarters, which is now a museum called the Topography of Terror, as well as the massive parade grounds in Nuremberg and at the work camp, Dachau, amongst many other sites that we visited.

What we learned is the mandated curriculum begins in eighth grade, and one thing that I thought was fascinating was how clear all of these memorial sites are about what is, and is not allowed. It was clearly stated at every entrance that it is not permitted to wear any article of clothing or show symbols that generally are associated with right wing extremist groups, or that violate in any way the human dignity of others, because of their origin, skin color or religion. I mean, just very clear everywhere we went.

Horn: I’m curious, what did the people you talked to, think or feel about these provisions?

Tavenner: Well Michael, obviously my conversations are anecdotal, but I talked with students, parents, and even grandparents, and they were all German and all have personal connections to people who were in some way or form connected to the Nazis. In every case they conveyed a deep sense of responsibility to ensure that this never happens again. I didn’t detect in any of them an overwhelming confidence that it wouldn’t, but rather a deep commitment to continue to remember and educate so that it won’t. I also ask them about shame. I feel grateful for their vulnerability, so many of the German folks that I talked to shared what it feels like to have a relatively recent family history of people who were Nazis, or at a minimum, did nothing to stop them. That said, what I heard over and over again was a clarity that the people I was talking to do not feel shame for being German. They all said to me, “I did not do these things and I feel responsible for making sure they never happen again.”

Horn: I just want to highlight that, Diane, because I think it’s an important one. Just repeating your words, they don’t feel shame about being German. They’re very clear that they as individuals did not do it, and they feel a shared interest in remembering and making sure it doesn’t happen again. And all of those things are held true at the same time and they’re not in contradiction. Given the conversations in the U.S. at present, it seems important to me as well, because I think we often hold those various statements in contradiction with each other, which clearly do not have to be.

Now I’m curious, and this may be starting to go into other territory, but I’m curious, what was it like to be in Germany and diving deeply into World War II history, while at the very same time Russia was invading Ukraine? I mean, many of course have noted the parallels between Hitler invading different parts of Europe and how the West watched it happen, and how World War II was the last total war in Europe, of course. As well as frankly, the initial non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany before Germany turned on Russia. But I also know that this hits very close to home for you personally because your son Rhett has three very close friends who are Ukrainian, studying with him.

Tavenner: Yeah, it’s really personal, clearly to both of us. Michael, it’s hard to even think about where to begin on that, it’s big. But if I had to go to a high level, the thing I kept noticing was the geography and the geography is such a difference between European countries and our country. We have a country that’s bordered by two nations and two oceans, and we have a relatively short history. The opposite is true in Europe. As one teeny example, we spent days in Berlin where you literally can’t go anywhere without physically walking over the bricks in the ground that trace the former wall separating East and West Berlin. And let’s just say the relationship between Germany and Russia who were involved in that, is incredibly long, complicated and nuanced, and is still very present in day to day life.

One of the things that I was really curious to talk about was the term denazification, because while Russia is slightly shifting at this point, off that message as a justification for their war on Ukraine, at the start of the war, this is what they used. They were entering and invading to denazify Ukraine. And like so many people, I was baffled by this explanation, just the simple fact that the Ukraine has a democratically elected Jewish president seemed to defy any logic here to me. I started asking Germans what they made of it. And again, a fascinating set of conversations that became really clear for me. In one discussion with this amazing guide we had, Max in Munich, and he was able to break it down so clearly and bring together what I had been hearing from people all over the country.

Specifically, he believes that denazification is a three step process. Step one is to rid the country of Nazis, and by this he means the people who are the true believers and perpetuators of the propaganda that enables the Nazi beliefs, as well as the laws. You’ve got to get rid of the laws and the policies and practices that enable the discrimination and destruction of a group of people. Step two is to undo the brainwashing of the people, to essentially wash away the effects of the propaganda and the misinformation that enables a group of people to believe that another group is inferior and then therefore allow all sorts of unspeakable horrors happen to them.

And then step three, is to teach the people a new way of thinking and behaving. This was such an interesting add because it’s not just do away with the old thinking, but actually teach people a new way of thinking and behaving. As I understood it from Max’s stories and those of others, this is an ongoing cycle that has to be repeated over and over again. It’s not a simple, linear approach, which will never be sufficient, which is why the country continues to work at all three of those steps on multiple levels.

Horn: I think it’s important because you’re not just creating a vacuum, you’re filling the vacuum. I also think this is why we tell the Passover story over and over again, Diane, every single year in Hebrew, we’d say “l’dor va dor,” from generation to generation. And I think we do that because it’s easy to forget it, that these horrors happened, if you don’t embed and continually stand guard really in the culture, which again I always think of as the practices and priorities that you do on a day to day, month to month, year to year basis. And as we say in the course of the Seder, none of us are free until all of us are free. I always take that very deeply to mean around the world, not just Jews or people in the story, right?

So Diane, as you’re describing what you learned, it’s clear to me that there are parallels and potentially interesting models for us to at least consider in the U.S. I’m not sure we need to beat people over the head with the analogy, but I’d love to see if, between us two, we can just identify a few of those that might be able to lead the conversations about critical race theory and race that have become so polarized, and frankly so unproductive, to a place where they could actually be uniting and allow us to make some forward progress.

Tavenner: I think that’s exactly where my mind goes Michael, and so let’s start with how we even enter the conversation about what to teach our children. I think if we take Germany’s approach and examine that, and look at it, and see what it would look like if applied to the US, the conversation and decisions might unfold very differently from how they are right now. Specifically I think we would start by getting alignment on some key, big ideas, the first one being, do we the people of the United States collectively agree that we do not believe in enslaving people? Or in laws that discriminate against people for the color of their skin? Or in policies and practices that allow people to physically harm other people because of the color of their skin?

And Michael, I know that lots of people in our country believe that many others in our country do not believe those statements, and I understand why, I also think this is where Germany started and it would be an interesting place for us to start. Because I actually believe that if we set aside a relatively small group of extremists, I think the vast majority of Americans agree with those three, big ideas and statements, Michael.

Horn: Yeah. I would agree Diane. I’d say that I think both sides, if you will, we’re assuming it’s a two part, but both sides, all sides need to and should give more benefit of a doubt to the other side and grounding it in what I would call really our first principles, is a really helpful place to start.

Tavenner: Yeah. I think the next place to get an alignment is that, and I think we have to say this out loud, in the history of the United States, our governments, federal, state and/or local have provided for the legal enslavement of people, have discriminated against people based on their skin color and allowed people to be physically harmed and killed because of their skin color. And in all of the legislation being proposed in the school board meetings and the CRT discussion, I don’t actually hear most people denying this history. So I appreciate… Once again, I know there’s skepticism about people’s beliefs around this, but I do think we have a significant majority of people in our country who acknowledge these facts.

Horn: Yeah, I agree again. I think most people do acknowledge this past and when you can push past the rhetoric, like you, I actually don’t hear most people denying this history and these clear facts that are just true. They happened.

Tavenner: Yeah. I think what’s interesting, we should go to this place at some point, some of what gets caught up in these conversations is the timeline, right? You said history there, and I think a lot of people would argue the history is very much more current…

Horn: Present.

Tavenner: …So maybe the timeline is some of the issue there. But I think getting clear on the acknowledgement of that truth, those sets of truths, is really critical. Then I think the next question is, do we all agree that, as Americans we share a collective responsibility for making sure these things are not part of our future? Literally from today going forward, and even though they were part of our past? And then finally, Michael, again if we’re looking to just the German model as an example, we do need to teach our children and future generations to ensure that these things are not part of our future, and do we agree to that?

Horn: Yeah, Diane, I mean, I think this all makes sense as well. I think one lesson over history is that it’s easy to let your guard down and for past to be prologue. That recognition I think leads us to the second thing Germany did, which was to decide that the only way to not repeat the past, is to learn about it and then consciously, actively learn to do things differently. In other words, to explicitly teach it. I also think it’s telling that Germany decided to start teaching this past in eighth grade. It’s interesting because I think one of the big complaints and issues in a lot of the school board fights we see, and frankly a lot of the state legislation right now, not just around this, but around a lot of issues, is how we think about curriculum aimed at young children.

But I’d also say it’s something that I think a lot about in our own household today, Diane. I mean, how do I teach about the Holocaust to my children? Frankly, how do we teach about the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt? Like the Haggadah that we read from, it’s not like a G-rated text. And on the former, on the Holocaust, I’ve even reached out to my children’s religious school to ask how they think about it. And while I remember delving deeply, I think around fourth grade, although I will confess my precise memory is foggy on just how young I was when I learned about the Holocaust, although I suspect it was connected in some ways with The Sound of Music and Indiana Jones.

I will say that as a dad with seven year-olds, while they are now certainly aware of the Holocaust from their own reading, we have been very cautious in talking about it too much, or even commemorating Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is also… I talked about the days we’ve been celebrating in April, Holocaust Remembrance Day is in April, it’s a day to pause and recollect. But there’s so much evil and bad in the world that, as children we frankly wanted to shield them from some of it, not entirely of course, but also because, Diane, there’s so much good in the world that’s worth celebrating and highlighting, and allowing them to have a really positive formative outlook on life. I don’t know, it’s not an answer, just a reflection that we have attempted to be thoughtful and not overly scary, but not duck from it. And just try to be age appropriate, in other words.

Tavenner: I agree with you, Michael, it’s complex and I think you’re just sharing the level of nuance and reflection that’s required as we think about these things, and that the age of education is a persistent issue and might be a place for alignment. Because I think what you’re talking about will resonate with most people, and perhaps that’s a place we could really get aligned. I think a third approach Germany has modeled that we might be wise to consider, is the integration of the nation’s museums and memorials and methods of recognition, into the learning. And specifically Germany has set some really explicit norms around honoring and remembering victims and disallowing reverence for Nazis and their places and spaces of significance. And if we were to apply this approach and… Yeah, let me just go for it.

Horn: Go for it.

Tavenner: If we were to apply this approach, I think we’d be looking at doing things like amplifying and embracing the work that is led by Bryan Stevenson in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He actually studied Germany, he borrowed some of those ideas around the cobblestone markers that I shared with you, and has a version of that that he’s offered to our country, to remember lynchings in the US, we would be embracing that type of incredible work. I will just say we would ban the Confederate flag in the same way that the symbol of Nazism and the flags have been banned in Germany. We would remove Edmund Pettus’s name from the bridge in Selma, Alabama because the fact is, he was a grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and an unrepentant Confederate brigadier general.

And on or near that bridge, instead of his name, we would actually create a site that celebrated the strength and the courage of those who peacefully fought against the discrimination and harm of people of color, and there’s so many of those people to remember, and recognize, and celebrate. And that’s just the beginning of a list, but for the purposes of illustration, I think that’s the places we would be going.

Horn: Yeah well, let’s just go through those three quickly. I mean, the Bryan Stevenson one, I think that’s right, you would have, and if I understand it from Germany, markers that celebrate the lives and remember those who were tragically taken, and do not let us hide from that past. I think the second one around the Confederate flag is actually one of those areas where we might have some honest conversation and Americanization, if you will, of some of these ideas. Just to pick up on and be a little provocative, I’m not sure how banning the Confederate flag, writ large, would fly with our right to free speech in this country. Not discriminating based on race and free speech are both central values to our country and free speech is an important way to debate and discern truth in my view.

But I guess the nuance I’d offer or the place where I would say it should be a no-brainer, maybe it’s not nuanced, is that the Confederate flag would be banned from flying in any public place or government office and the like, it would not be celebrated, period, in any official capacity. And on your last point about the bridge in Selma, I’d amplify that and say that those who fought against the United States for the Confederacy and to preserve slavery, they should not have their names or likenesses adorning any government or public building or space, and they should instead be consigned to museum exhibits where yes, we’re not erasing the history, we can actively learn about them, but we are not celebrating them.

Tavenner: Yeah, Michael, I think this is the conversation that I wish we were having, and thanks for modeling exactly what I wish the dialogue was sounding like. It would be a true dialogue centered on shared beliefs and a shared desire to move our country forward. As we’re walking through these actions that Germany has taken, I can’t help but bring up a question that honestly kept looping in my mind as I traveled, and I kept asking myself over and over again while we were traveling. And that was, if I were Jewish, would I trust the country of Germany enough to live there?

One answer to that, that I had to look up the data, and the reality is there were over a half a million Jews living in Germany before the Nazis took power. And today that population is estimated to be just over 100,000 so there’s one potential answer. And honestly, Michael, I was having a hard time imagining answering yes to the question, and I really wanted to get back and made me want to ask you that question.

Horn: Yeah. Yeah, and I confess, since we plan these things out a little bit and since you’ve posed it, I’ve been turning it over a lot in my head, and I think it’s a useful question on a number of fronts. I mean, I will say as a backdrop amid the racial reckoning, another friend of mine who’s Jewish said to me that the test he likes to do for himself is to substitute in the word Jew for any given underrepresented minority group and see how he then feels about a particular question, to help him navigate some of these conversations and questions, and really put him in the shoes of other so that it feels like him. Because the Jewish education is very much around the persecution and such that we’ve faced, and so it’s an … I won’t say easy, but it’s a way to put ourselves in those footsteps.

I think about in regards to, if I felt a country today had these views and policies that actively discriminated against Jews, would it be a place where I could live and where I would choose to live? And I’m not sure I would, but I honestly, Diane, I don’t know. And I’ll say, that’s the present, which perhaps raises its own questions. As we know that Germany and other places in Europe aren’t perfect on these fronts, and as for a country grappling with its past, and frankly we should say America has been far from all roses for Jews historically as well. But I guess, Diane, I’ll offer a story maybe that may be interesting rather than an answer. I know this is me defaulting to a Clay Christensen technique of, I don’t know the answer, but let me give you a story.

But one of my grandmothers, I would say, she harbored deeply negative feelings, Diane, about Germany that she could never get over in her lifetime. So much so that she would root against German athletes, tennis players, we’re a big tennis family, just because they were German. And that might seem shocking except that I know myself and others, if I’m being honest, people in my generation who grew up in the Cold War, we often, not always, but often, root reflexively against Russian athletes many times for similar reasons.

But I’ll tell you this story also, which is just one generation later. My dad was the first American Jew to go live in Germany as a part of a study abroad program for the American Field Service in high school. This wasn’t in college, but in high school and the year was 1966, and he lived with a German family, and to this day he considers them his German family. And he’ll speak often and fondly about his time with his German brother, the teasing that they had back and forth, the stories of love that they had. I think Diane, that’s the spirit in which, at least I was raised, and perhaps that helps answer your question. It’s not just that time heals, but that time with concerted actions to never forget and never repeat, and that we can forgive and find forgiveness.

Tavenner: Yeah, Michael, thank you for sharing that story and your perspective, they’re really powerful and really consistent with just the experience. I think one of the reasons the experience I had in Germany was so profound, is just the opportunity to really be in dialogue with people, and it’s so different when you’re actually talking with people than when you’re talking broadly or generally, or you’re using social media or some other impersonal medium. I’m really grateful to you for sharing and for the opportunity to learn from you and alongside you.

Speaking of learning, I don’t know that there’s a graceful way to transition after this conversation, but I will say I know that we both like to think that our reading and watching and listening is about relaxing or having some grasp on pop culture, but I think honestly, we are both always seeking to learn a bit in what we’re doing on the outside. With that though, I will ask you, I’m curious what you’ve been up to lately.

I’ll start and just share for me, I’ve returned to a book I previously read and even shared on the podcast, because it’s just so relevant to our conversation today, and I just felt like I needed to go back and reread part of it. That book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. Specifically there’s two chapters in the book, chapter eight, which is titled, “The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste,” and chapter nine, which is titled, “The Evil of Silence.” These chapters provide a historical record for why it is relevant to consider what has happened in Germany and the US in, I think the way we’ve been doing today and talking about today, and so I offer that. What about you?

Horn: Yeah. Yeah, I appreciate all this and appreciate continuing to learn, not just from these conversations and you sharing so openly, but the books that you choose to revisit in this case, and read. I’ve recently finished a few books by friends and family that I’ll just be totally honest, I felt I should read. But one was about being more compassionate, really helping teachers be more compassionate to themselves, interestingly enough. The other was about how social media has altered and perhaps disrupted how we conduct the study of, and teach and learn about history. And I’ll say Diane, I had some questions about the conclusions that were drawn, but I actually think it’s very relevant to the conversation that we’ve had today, Diane, in terms of drawing simple lessons out of history and being simplistic for the click bait, if you will, and that’s easy to mount. I think it relates to the questions that I know we will continue to ask in this show and in this dialogue with our listeners.

With that, thank you Diane, for sharing your personal reflections. Thank you all for joining us. If you have reflections on this particular episode, Diane and I always like to hear from you, but I will say this is one we would love your thoughts on, and thanks as always for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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