by Dr Matthew Brandt,
Senior Vice President

It was one of those bitterly cold and dark winter evenings in Minnesota – dark at 4:30 pm and below zero. Snow was piled up and the sidewalks were just slippery enough that you had to think, just a bit, about the steps you were taking. 

This was a time, a day perhaps, to just get through – to survive and hope that you’d see the sun and feel some of its warmth, eventually. 

Surviving a winter in the cold North can be exhausting. So much of the prior two years was about survival – to just make it to the next place, the slightly better, safer, and possibly more connected space.  

As I sat, sipped my coffee, and looked outside at the dark and cold late afternoon – wondering if the streets were as slippery as the sidewalk – something spoke saying, “its time to do more than survive.” 

I work at Innocent Technologies. We offer a suite of services to schools and districts that build a greater sense of belonging and connection to learning and education for all students, and esp. our Black, brown, and Indigenous students. We call this work Innocent Classroom. 

We work with the most caring, dedicated, and child-centered professionals – from the Superintendent’s offices to the early childhood classrooms. Their belief in children – their focus on positive outcomes for the children and families they serve don’t waiver.  

And, the job of educator and educational leader is a tough and vexed reality. That was the case before the pandemic and it’s certainly the case in the pandemic’s aftermath – or whatever we are living through right now.  

Which brings me back to the wintry evening. 

I thought, Innocent Technologies has somewhat successfully navigated the past few years – moving from a fully in-person suite of services to offering these same services via Zoom, hybrid, and now to back to primarily in-person services.  

Educators have somewhat successfully navigated these past few years. They pivoted to virtual instruction, to hybrid instruction, to instruction with masks on, and finally back to “normal.”  

Our shared experiences have been like the sidewalk outside on this day – we’ve been walking and moving forward, yes. But, it’s been slow, slippery, and just fraught enough to make you occasionally question the whole endeavor.  

I finished my coffee. Made my way home on the just so slippery sidewalks and was pleased that the streets and highway were clear.  

In the weeks that followed that winter day, we, the team at Innocent Technologies, challenged ourselves. We agreed to be relentless in the pursuit of new approaches and new services that can help our partners meet the unique challenges of our time. We agreed to question everything – our past assumptions, our history and even our organizational culture. We agreed to shake off any malaise we felt from the past few years. 

While challenging all things we considered: ultimately, the Innocent Classroom is about a practice; we introduce and support an intentional way of relating to students to transform each child’s relationship to their education. We offer educators a new skill set – a skill that can be introduced, developed, observed, coached, and improved upon.  

As we questioned everything we wondered – how can we better support the learning & implementation of this practice we so deeply believe in? How can we level up what we bring to the table as a partner? 

To interrogate this question with rigor, we applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant through the federal Dept. of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to build and test a prototype software application based on the Innocent Classroom practice. 

The grant application process asked the questions we needed to answer and as we worked through the questions, a new digital product/service began to emerge: 

  • 1. A software application that unapologetically supports educators in building a new relational skill set that helps them engage more effectively with all the children in their classrooms, and especially those most distant from their education.  
  • 2. A software application that produces the data a teacher needs to track the quality of their students’ relationships with education, and the data school administrators need to understand the overall quality of children’s relationships in their buildings.  
  • 3. A software application that is relentless in helping educators use that data to drive impact for the students who can benefit the most. 

Now, fast forward to a sunny day in June. I’m sitting outside enjoying the evening, the challenge and scramble of answering grant application questions about what we could build several months behind us. I’m hopeful that we at least make it to the round where the evaluators give us feedback on our concept.  

This concept has intoxicated our team – we plan to find a way to pursue it regardless of the result of our grant application. 

But on this evening, I look at my phone, and there is an email from IES informing us that our grant to build and test a prototype of this software application has been funded! 

“Woah. We’re going to get a chance.” 

We’ve seen Innocent Classroom educators help children completely transform their relationships to school through the intentional use of the Innocent Classroom practice.  

We’ve seen entire schools pivot the ways they collaborate to ensure each child’s belonging, belief, and ultimate success. 

We’ve seen systems change the ways they interact, discipline, hire, supervise, manage, relate, and approach each other based on their practice of Innocence. 

And now, starting with 8 months of intense concepting, partnership, prototyping, testing, and research, the promise we make to our partners and the children they serve – that everyone can be Innocent in our education system – has the chance to be fulfilled.  

For more information or to get involved in the research study surrounding this prototype, please click here.