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IPEN Second Annual Festival: The World Positive Education Accelerator (Part 1)

The International Positive Education Network, known to friends as IPEN, held its second annual festival in Ft. Worth Texas from June 25 to June 28. The conference was jointly sponsored by the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, so you won’t be surprised that the conference title was The World Positive Education Accelerator.

Not in Manhattan…

I’m Not in Manhattan Any More

I arrived the day before the conference began and started strolling through the streets of Fort Worth, feeling a bit like an extra in a spaghetti western with all the actors in their trailers waiting for the cameras to roll. As I walked through the seemingly deserted town, I had to clasp my straw hat to keep the strong hot gusts from blowing it away. Early the next morning the Fort Worth Convention Center was bursting with more than 800 educators ready to contribute to IPEN’s mission to bring together many voices to promote Positive Education.

These Educators are Pumped for Change

Participants exemplified a new breed of educator, armed with experience in character strengths, meditation breaks, and gratitude interventions along with the usual lesson plans and anti-bullying strategies. They aim to transform contemporary education. More than 200 presenters led a huge variety of sessions, sharing best-practices and practical experiences. David Cooperrider then led an Appreciative Inquiry Summit on Imagining Positive Education.

A Global Movement is Building

IPEN encourages a paradigm shift from focusing solely on academic success to creating education that is steeped in positive emotions, engagement with the world, good relationships with others, a sense of meaning and moral purpose, and the accomplishment of valued goals. The goal of positive education is to equip young people with the knowledge and life skills to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others.

Lea Waters with Lisa Buksbaum

The opening program started with a keynote by Lea Waters author of The Strength Switch, a best-selling book in its fourth printing that has been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Hungarian. Lea is the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne. She wants to help parents around the world learn how to use the lens of strengths-based parenting (SBP) instead of spending so much energy freaking out, obsessing, and lecturing their children to accomplish more and to score higher on tests. She envisions a world with without Tiger Mothers, Drill Sergeant Dads, and Absentee Parents.

Like a ray of sunshine in her yellow dress, Lea’s morning keynote lit up the opening session as she shared the science, stories and strategies of strength-based parenting. Lea spoke about the need for parents, educators, and students to work together as the three legs of a sturdy stool in order to give a child a strong foundation to flourish and grow. Her scholarship is solid, and her style is approachable and easy to understand. I believe her experience both as a mother and a researcher make her a credible expert who can guide parents through the waters (pardon the pun) of modern parenting.

According to Lea once children and parents can see a child’s strengths, then they can start to build on them. Strengths are protective: they lower levels of depression, anxiety, and negative emotions. They also enhance life satisfaction, positive emotions and self-confidence. Strengths also amplify qualities particularly important for education:

  • Growth mindset, leading to persistence and better academic grades
  • Coping skills for stress, whether the stress comes from friendship issues that are so important to youngsters or from homework challenges
  • Engagement and self-efficacy, leading to a can-do attitude

As the chairperson of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), Lea ended her talk with a personal invitation to attend the IPPA World Congress on July 18-21 2019 in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

Deep Thoughts from the President of IPEN

Sir Anthony Seldon on stage

I’m quite sure I will never forget my first experience of Sir Anthony Seldon, who delivered the opening keynote at the 2016 Inaugural IPEN Festival while standing on his head. He just published a new book, The Fourth Education Revolution, about the impact of artificial intelligence on education.

A master storyteller, Seldon led a more subdued, introspective session this year. It started with him stating that he lost his wife just a few months ago. Sir Anthony urged the audience to take action immediately because “the world is hurting, the world is bleeding, the world needs this… so here are ten things that you can do to make a difference.” Cue some classical music and the start of his keynote: Pleasure Ends But Happiness is Endless. He juxtaposed ten still-life photos of succulent fruits (strawberry, pineapple, blueberries, mango, cherries and the like) with “Seldon-isms” to motivate the participants to meditate on ways they will take action to be positive change-agents in their communities and in the world. Here’s a sample from his 10 points.

Strawberries and Cherries

Smell the silicon.: Artificial intelligence (AI) can be a revolutionary force for the 1.2 billion children around the world without access to schools or qualified teachers. However, he cautioned us to remember to use AI to emphasize what makes us human.

It’s Happiness Stupid! Sir Anthony made a stark distinction between pleasure and happiness:

  • Pleasure is the pursuit, conquest and obsession with objects, consumption and oneself.
  • Happiness is grounded on the spirit, the soul, love, the concept of “us” and what makes us deeply human.

Luscious apples

There is no time to waste. These luscious apples can decay if not eaten soon. We must act now to transform the state of education that was created to match the factory model of the Industrial Revolution into an educational experience that nourishes the talents of children.


Bye bye binary: That’s such a 20th Century concept, seeing the world in stark contrasts such as black vs. white, East vs. West, likes vs. don’t likes. The 21st Century is the era of Both/And. It involves being open to different approaches, learning styles, and cultures in order to hold the space where academic cognitive learning infused with holistic education can be a transformative power in our lives.

Coming soon: Part 2 with reports on speeches by luminaries such as Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, and Dan Kessler, whose company’s app has reached 30 million people.

To read the 2nd part of this article click here.



Seldon, A. & Abidoye, O. (2018). The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity. University of Buckingham Press.

Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.

Image Credits from Unsplash
Boots in Texas Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash
Strawberries and cherries: Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash
Cherries Photo by Thomas Quaritsch on Unsplash

Pictures of Sir Anthony Seldon and Dr. Lea Waters courtesy of Soaringwords.org

IPEN Part 2: Angela Duckworth and Dan Kessler and more

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IPEN Part 2:   Angela Duckworth and Dan Kessler and more


To read part 1 of this article click here.

Walking the Character Walk with Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth breezed into the Ft. Worth Conference Center at the end of the afternoon and quickly captivated all 800 participants with her passion, humility, and humor. Her riveting headliner talk was called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

However, her first statement was, “There’s something bigger and more urgent in education than Grit and that something is Character.” In fact, she quoted the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Intelligence plus character, that is the good of true education.” She went on to say that as a former teacher, “I never met a kid that didn’t make me want to help him or her live a better life.”

Her goal is to teach the faithful that character strengths can be learned and practiced because they are malleable. Duckworth is the founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. With the IPEN crowd she had a most receptive audience.

IPEN Wall chart (click for larger view)

The fact that she’s also a woman of many contradictions made her talk more interesting. For example, although she is a MacArthur Genius (proving that she’s really smart) and she has been incorporating character strengths into positive education for years, when it comes to her own children, Duckworth is a self-confessed Tiger Mom. She was herself raised by two Asian parents who always quietly inquired, “What happened to the other two points?” if she got a 98% test grade. Effortlessly sharing the data from the character research while acknowledging the reality of being a modern-day parent makes Duckworth’s talks resonate with educators and parents alike.

After telling several poignant and humorous examples from the front-lines of education demonstrating how grit and self-control are distinct from IQ and how they powerfully predict success and well-being, Angela unveiled several new videos from Character Lab. These videos are part of the Character Lab Playbooks, a suite of videos, lesson plans and activities all of which are freely downloadable for teachers to use. For example, there are videos for Expert Practice (Grit), for Building Connections (Curiosity), and for WOOP (boosting self-control).

For those of you who have not encountered this acronym, WOOP stands for setting a Wish or intention; identifying the intended Outcome; articulating Obstacles in the way of achieving the goal; and creating a Plan.

Character Lab WOOP from Character Lab on Vimeo.

More Character Lab videos appear in the references below.

Speaking of videos, if you’d like to learn more about grit, here’s a Soaringwords interview with Angela filmed in New York City on the evening before her book was published: How Gritty Are You?.

Daniel Kessler
Courtesy of Soaringwords.org

Measurable Behavior Changes with Meditation

I was intrigued by the title of Dan Kessler’s talk, Making Meditation the 21st Century’s Dodge Ball, since I don’t typically think about meditation, people turning inward to calm their minds, in the same sentence with dodge ball, a sometimes vicious sport that tantalized and terrorized students in my childhood. So he had me at the title.

As the VP of Business Development and Partnerships at Headspace, Kessler and his colleagues have been busy “making the world happier” as more than 30 million people have already downloaded the Headspace meditation apps. Meditation was surely considered weird in the 1960s, but is now common as today teachers around the world lead meditation in classrooms. Students show measurable behavior changes that suggest they have become a “little bit more self-aware and kind.”

Specifically, Dan showed findings that Headspace apps increase compassion by 23% and decrease aggression by 57% after three weeks of meditation practice. After ten days, students show an 11% decrease in stress, which drops to a 32% decrease after 30 days. He ended his talk by announcing the Educator’s discount of 90%, allowing educators to sign up on Headspace.com for $1 a month.

Author with Jessica Finkelstein
courtesy of SoaringWords.org

SOARING into Strength in the Classroom

I was delighted to co-present two talks during the afternoon break-out sessions with my esteemed colleague, Jessica Finkelstein, the After-school Advisor and Health PE teacher at Millennium High School in New York City.

Our first talk illustrated Soaringwords’ pay-it-forward positive educational interventions using expressive arts projects (writing, artwork, movement and song) that have been shared with more than 100,000 students in classrooms and schools throughout North America and dozens on other countries. Students experience a shift when they discover that doing something kind and simple for an ill classmate or a child who is in the hospital can actually have a transformative impact on his/her own well-being. It makes the teachers feel pretty amazing as well! The second talk shared Best Practices for Educators, Parents, and School communities when a child is ill or dies. Specifically, we talked about the Ten Things to Never Say to a Student Who is Ill or to a Child who is Grieving.

To read part 1 of this article click here.

More of Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab videos:

Expert Practice from Character Lab on Vimeo.

Character Lab Playbooks from Character Lab on Vimeo.

The rest of the playbooks

Other Resources

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.

Headspace (2018). Scientific rigor.

Inspire picture and wall chart from the official IPEN photographs.
Other photos used courtesy of Soaringwords.org

Movie Review: Far From The Tree

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Movie review from the national premiere of Far From the Tree
Directed by Rachel Dretzin & based on the book by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Andrew Solomon

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is a timeworn adage that gets most heads nodding like a metronome. Except, of course, when the apple does in fact fall far. This stunning documentary takes you behind the scenes with several incredible families where individual children are outliers, entirely distinctive from all the other kinsfolk. Right now the film is opening in theaters across the United States and I encourage you to observe positive profiles in resilience, hope, and the enduring power of love amongst five amazing families. Perhaps you’ll need a wad of tissues.

The movie is based on Andrew Solomon’s critically acclaimed best-selling book of the same name that took readers on an intimate journey into the hearts and private recesses of families with differently-abled offspring. Now ten years later, five new families are featured in the film.

Solomon plunged into a 12-year exploration of what it means to have a child who is profoundly different after his agonizing coming out experience with his parents. Both parents admonished him that his homosexuality was immoral and would lead to a life of pain, solitude, and suffering. This motivated him to explore how other parents responded to their differently-abled children. This journey of self-discovery resulted in the 800-page book that won all sorts of awards and made him into a champion of people whose perceived deficits can be celebrated instead of cured.

In masterfully crafting a constellation of stories of difference, Solomon and Director Rachel Dretzin actually illuminate what unites us, rather than what divides us.

Using home movie footage, poignant parent interviews and active slice-of-life footage of the five families going about their daily lives you feel that you are watching an intimate time-release trajectory of the child’s life from birth, toddlerhood, young adulthood as the struggles and victories occur right in front of the camera. The result is compelling; it is impossible to look away. You come to know, respect, and love the film’s parents and children.

Dretzel and Solomon panel

These profiles include Jason, a 41-year old vibrant man with Down syndrome who was a child star on Sesame Street; Jack, a teenager with severe autism; Loini, a 23-year-old woman with dwarfism as she attends her first Little People of America Conference discovering that there are thousands of other people like her; Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism who decide to have a baby and give birth to a daughter of average stature; and the parents and siblings of Trevor, a young man who is incarcerated because at age 16, he murdered an 8-year-old boy in his neighborhood.

After the film debut to a sold-out crowd at the JCC Manhattan, Solomon and Dretzin did a Talk Back with the audience. It was a primer in positive psychology that can be summarized in these four findings:

Narrative has healing power.

If you’re familiar with the work of Jamie Pennebaker and Margarita Tarragona, you appreciate how hearing positive stories and telling positive stories helps shape perceptions of our individual realities in a more positive way. According to Solomon, “It’s only by delving deep into yourself that you reach the point of your own healing. So many people I interviewed before the film felt lonely and isolated by their experiences. Telling coherent narratives was a way for them to feel fully realized, seen and celebrated.“

Guilt kills happiness.

To a parent, at one point every single mother and father profiled in the film poignantly ponders their part in their child’s situation. “Perhaps a healthier diet during pregnancy” or maybe it was “a malfunction passed down through the genes,” or maybe “breastfeeding would have resulted in a more normal child.” After hearing each of these resilient, noble parents voice these doubts while looking directly into the camera, the film skillfully makes the case that sometimes nature trumps nurture. I think one of the most powerful outcomes from watching the movie is the heightened empathy I feel for the parents, including the parents and siblings of a child who perpetrated a violent crime.

Acceptance is a lifelong process.

Lisa with Andrew Solomon

The movie shows us five powerful examples of parents accepting the child they have, not ruminating over the “what ifs” or “what could have beens.” In 1987, Emily Klingsley, Jason’s mother, wrote an essay entitled Welcome to Holland that captures the feelings of remorse, bewilderment, and finally tolerance and acceptance.

Forgiveness is powerful.

One of the most compelling moments in the film is in the scene at Solomon’s wedding when his father gives a loving toast to his son and brand-new son-in-law. Aside from his sexual identity, over the years, Solomon has also written about his debilitating bouts of depression (The Noonday Demon) when his father bathed and fed him until he was strong enough to care for himself. When an audience member asked him if he took his dad to task for his parents’ initial attempts to convince him to become heterosexual, Solomon sighed and said, “My father is 91 years old. That happened a long time ago. We love each other and there’s no reason to rehash past trauma.” This is a staggering example of forgiveness in action by a masterfully gifted storyteller and activist.


Movie Trailer


Solomon, A. (2013). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Reprint). New York: Scribner.

Kingsley, E. P. (1987). Welcome to Holland.

Niederhoffer, K. G. & Pennebaker, J. W. (2009). Sharing one’s story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience. In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), By Shane J. Lopez, C.R. Snyder: Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology Second (2nd) Edition. Oxford University Press.

Solomon, A. (2015). The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. New York: Scribner.

Tarragona, M. (2013). Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology. The Positive Psychology Workbook Series.