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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.

Dawn’s Venture theme was “The Impact of the Internet”, and in the absence of community partners, we hosted many guest speakers - including Dr. Ford, above, who taught us about the history of the internet and artificial intelligence.
The Impact of the Internet

Here is an example schedule for a student in this new model.

  • 8:30am - 9:15am Meeting with mentor, or work on CARE inquiry

  • 9:15am - 10:25am Math

  • 10:30am - 11:10am Book Study (either independent reading/writing or Socratic Seminar with the mentor group)

  • 11:10am - 11:40am Individual Work Time

  • 11:40am - 12:30pm Lunch

  • 12:30pm - 1:20pm Advisory and SEL

  • 10 minute break

  • 1:30pm - 2:30pm Venture Lesson and Group Work / Discussion

  • 2:30pm - ??? Work time on Venture Project

As a PBL school, we always end each quarter with an Exhibition of Learning. That part has not changed. However, the format, of course, is different when we’re all remote, so we’re doing a remote Exhibition of Learning this week. Each student will present highlights of their quarter and their work to a group of their peers and community members.

So how did it go?

As with any new endeavor, there were highlights and lowlights. The new model wasn’t a good fit for all students, and we had some that unenrolled. Many parents were nervous. How will my child learn about the periodic table? How will she learn about the Civil War? Our messaging had to be consistent. We wanted to teach the students how to be learners; if you know how to be a learner, you can learn anything. Parents generally attended mentor meetings and regularly connected with the students’ teachers to close the communication gaps. Still, we found the messaging kept us on our toes.

Many of our students are thriving. I’ve seen student projects on a fantastic variety of topics, rich and fascinating, where the students truly dug deep to answer their own questions and created educational experiences better than I could have thought of for them.

This student’s CARE project involved learning how to use woodshop tools to make a box. He came to the school building to work with the shop tools and receive instruction from staff.
Students CARE Project

One student researched the life and style of Victoria Beckham and created a stop-motion video tribute. Another student learned to design small furniture items with 3D Design software and created YouTube tutorials about it.

And another student created her own Etsy store to sell handmade jewelry. Each student’s Venture project was personal, and many of them blew us away with their creativity and quality.

Some students did not thrive. Understanding what those students need to grow is going to be critical to this model’s success. We had many of the same issues that remote-learning models all over the country had; absences, engagement, effort, technology blips.

Some aspects of teacher workload are much improved from the old model. I have fewer students on my rosters overall and can spend more time giving each student better feedback. However, the time and feedback we do provide are pretty intense, and in the middle and end of the quarter, we put in a lot of hours.

Prepping for teaching is a massive effort. In a student-directed learning experience like Venture, you can’t easily reuse lessons from year to year, and the learning experiences you often create get adapted when you see the work students did the day before. Mentors and Venture teachers spend a great deal of time reviewing student work, giving feedback, and helping the learners iterate or get unstuck. Overall, the workload is probably heavier in our model than in teaching traditional classes. However, the work is more purposeful and meaningful.

This student is learning to repair computers as part of the school’s student-led tech team, an internship opportunity at Compass.
This student is learning to repair computers as part of the school’s student-led tech team, an internship opportunity at Compass.

We find the same thing is true for our students. Being an independent learner after being a spoon-fed learner is a giant leap. Even in our school, where students had practice being creative, independent learners in half the day over the last two years, to push it to a full week of very self-inspired and deep learning is a challenge. We are learning to be forthright about this with prospective students and their families. Compass is “harder” than traditional middle and high schools.

You have to learn and practice more self-management skills (emotional and logistical), and you have to stay curious and engaged. There is no sleeping through classes and turning in the bare minimum to “pass” a Compass class. There is no flying under the radar, not being seen or challenged to thrive. It takes courage. It breeds hope and self-confidence.

For the kids who are ready, seeing the level of engagement and the speed of growth is exhilarating for kids, teachers, and families alike.

Contributors & Special Thanks To:

Dawn DuPriest

 Math/Technology Teacher @DuPriestMath on Twitter

Jan Harrison

School Leader, Compass Community Collaborative School

@CCCFortCollins on Twitter

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