We Actually Reimagined Education During the Pandemic: One School's Story

Contributing Writers: Dawn DuPriest & Jan Harrison

This student’s passion is dance, and she used her inquiry time to explore COVID-safe performance options
This student’s passion is dance, and she used her inquiry time to explore COVID-safe performance options

Earlier this week on Twitter, I saw a conversation that’s come up a few times since March...

"Question for educators:
Can you name a school or district who actually “reimagined education” during the pandemic?
Like, is there any school, district, superintendent who scrapped virtual learning and actually reimagined education??”

Like the original author, @SchoolPsychLife, it surprises me that more schools weren’t more courageous in actually reimagining school. We had plenty of notice - after being thrown into emergency online learning in the spring. We ended up with a spring and a summer to rethink what was and what wasn’t working about the way we did school. . And there’s a lot to rethink.

In most secondary schools, teachers have too many students to get to know them well, and can’t spend the time needed to give good feedback. Grading systems are arbitrary. Authentic, deep learning is difficult, almost impossible when students switch teachers and subjects 8x a day for 40 minutes each.

Learners rarely connect subjects or create new ideas on their own. Learning is superficial, and school becomes a game of checking boxes. Adding COVID-19 safety measures - whether learning remotely or learning at school in a safe, socially-distant way - makes an already draining academic experience even worse.

We had an opportunity this summer to reimagine the student experience and make it meaningful. At Compass Community Collaborative School in Fort Collins, Colorado - we decided to take the leap. Compass is a small, project-based learning school for grades 6-12. Still, our school design in 2019 used some traditional structures such as “Intensive” classes, where students learned science, social studies, math, or English from subject-area teachers and received grades mapped to content standards.

The afternoon was the best part of the day because it was dedicated to interdisciplinary Venture Projects that were the heart of our model. We taught and practiced Humanity-Centered Design and worked on real-world problems with community partners, and got to see kids engaged in meaningful, creative work. Intensive classes were always controversial among the staff in our young school. These classes were controversial amongst staff because…

  • Some of us saw the intensives as necessary for building foundational knowledge and skills that kids wouldn’t necessarily get in project-based classes.

  • Some of us recognized the pressure from parents and colleges to provide these experiences on a transcript.

  • On the other hand, some of us also realized that we were replicating the same structures that caused our students to reject traditional schools.

  • These structures didn’t serve students all that well anyway, and our kids still didn’t thrive in these classes at our school.

So in March 2020, we had to move our school into emergency online mode. And then we had a summer to think about what we could do differently in the fall. While we have always been affiliated with Big Picture Learning, taking philosophies and ideas from this network, we took the pandemic slowdown to read more deeply about other inspiring models and learn more about Big Picture Learning key structures. One of the most impactful (re)reads was The Big Picture, by Littky and Grabelle.

In our July meeting, we started to discuss the possibility of getting rid of Intensive classes seriously. We could let the students set their own goals, understand their own zone of proximal development, learn what they wanted to learn, and create what they’ve always wanted to create. Perhaps students could make this extraordinary 2020-2021 school year the most purposeful year of learning they’ve ever had, with structures to provide mentoring, support, feedback, and the opportunity to share their learning and solve authentic problems.

So what would replace intensive classes?

The new proposed structure would have these elements:

  • math

  • literacy

  • personal inquiry

  • individual mentoring

  • social-emotional learning

  • a project-based learning experience.

By July, we knew we’d be returning as a fully-remote school at first, and we took the opportunity to engage in some structural re-design.

By the end of July, we knew we would be starting our school year in full-remote mode, so we divided the elements up into a partially-structured schedule. In one half of a school day, a student would focus on their Mentor-led experience and math class.

As part of mentoring, students participate in a book study and work on a personal inquiry (CARE project) and have regular, individual (parents are invited!) meetings with their mentor. In the other half of the day, students met with their Advisory class for social/emotional learning. Next, students had a PBL Venture Project class with the same group, in which they would participate in a quarter-long, community-engaged project centered on a theme (or partnership) and the design cycle.

Radical Shift for Staff

Even though our experienced, professional teaching staff had grown up in a traditional school system and taught for years in the same, they pushed back very little when leadership proposed this radical shift. The intensive schedule was hard to defend, and neither kids nor teachers were thriving on it. We developed the new schedule, which had only four experiences for each student;

  1. Book Study

  2. Math

  3. Mentoring/CARE

  4. Venture Project

Math and Literacy were the two “core” subjects we felt compelled to keep - and the way that we structured things meant that math teachers taught in their subject area, and every other content-area teacher learned to teach literacy through a book study. Our English teachers spent a lot of time this summer preparing the staff to teach text analysis, discussion protocols, and writing. Each teacher chose a book for their group.

Sam’s teaching credentials are in science and math, and he took the leap to become a CARE project mentor and book study leader for the morning. Here, he meets with his mentoring group to go over CARE project guidelines.

Every teacher still leads a Venture Project, and often these experiences are related to the teacher’s content-area expertise. A social studies teacher chose to teach a Venture on the 2020 election and civics. A math and science teacher chose a Venture topic of food sustainability. An English teacher chose a Venture topic of the impact of COVID on the arts.

Personally, Venture is my favorite class to teach because I can select a general theme that aligns with my strengths and interests as a teacher - and I get to grow and learn along with the students. Students go through the design cycle, choose a problem statement, and then create a solution. Usually, this happens with a community partner, in collaboration with other peers, but during our remote-learning quarter, it was an individual project.