The new question-of-the-week is:
With all the talk of “reimagining education,” how would students reimagine education next year?
Back in February, when “learning loss” was the “phrase of the day” in education circles, Neema Avashia and her students wrote Students Respond to Adults’ Fixation on ‘Learning Loss.’
They’re back today to take on a new buzz phrase, “reimagining education.”
‘What Do We Do Next?”
Neema Avashia is an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public schools, where she has taught for the last 18 years. She was a 2013 Educator of the Year in the city of Boston. The illustrations have been published with the permission of the student artists and their parents:
I asked students to reimagine education. Here’s what they said…
The stakes were high for my last unit of this school year. Students would be coming to school in person five days a week for the first time since March 2020. A third of my students would be attending in person, while the other two-thirds continued to learn online. I would be tasked with “simulteaching,” which meant trying to be two teachers at once—one supporting in-person learning and one supporting remote learning, though those, in fact, are actually two entirely different jobs.
I knew that I needed to create a unit that first and foremost felt healing for the young people re-entering the building. A number of my students have been hit hard by the pandemic. They’ve lost family members. They’ve lost access to stable housing. They’ve struggled with their mental health. My unit needed to support them emotionally and to help them reconnect with school, their teachers, and their peers. This also meant that the content of the unit needed to be highly relevant and engaging. I did not want the act of learning to feel like a power struggle; I wanted it to feel like something kids enjoyed doing. Finally, I needed to structure the unit in a way that allowed me to meet the needs of two different sets of students: those who were in person and those who were remote.
I decided to create a unit entitled “Reimagining Education.” The pandemic has shown all of us the ways in which our education system fails to meet the full range of needs of our students. The question for all of us has been: What do we do next?
I wanted my young people to have the opportunity to weigh in on this conversation.
The Structure and Content of the Unit
The unit had three phases. Phase 1, Reflection, involved having students create their own educational autobiography, in which they reflected on high and low points in their education, transformative-learning experiences, and relationships (both positive and negative) that have shaped their schooling experience. Students also conducted empathy interviews with peers to better understand how school can be a very different place for different kinds of people.
Phase 2, Research, involved giving students time to investigate what works and doesn’t work about American education. Young people listened to podcast episodes from Code Switch and This American Life about school closures and segregation. They explored the websites of schools all over the country that are approaching education in innovative ways, like High Tech High, the MET School, The Roses from Concrete School, San Francisco International School, and Purdue Polytechnic. They listened to TED talks from thinkers like Chris Emdin, Bettina Love, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade talking about what schools aren’t doing well right now and what steps schools can take to shift their practice. And they heard from guest speakers—policymakers and district officials—talking about what needs to happen for education to be more equitable and more supportive of all students in our city and state.
Once this body of knowledge had been established, we moved into Phase 3, Design. During this phase, students were tasked with designing their own schools from scratch, using what they understood about their own experiences with school, as well as what we’d gathered from our research, to build a school that would work better for all young people. This design process involved creating everything from the school name to the mission, vision, and values to the daily schedule to the design of a classroom. Young people could work independently or in groups, but their ultimate goal was to build out a wholly different vision for education than the one they themselves have experienced.
So … What did students say?
No student’s school design involved starting before 8:30 a.m., a full hour later than school currently begins. Some began their days as late as noon. Most students built in a transition period at the start of the day that gave young people time to eat breakfast and ease into the school day, instead of jumping right into class. Their schedules included time for recess, longer lunch periods (40 minutes instead of 25), and 10-15 minute breaks between classes. Some students sought to take fewer classes at a time but to have them for a longer amount of time in the day. Others wanted shorter classes, with time at the start or end of the day to review and work on what they’d learned. A clear pattern I noticed in the schedules was an effort to reduce the intense level of pressure and urgency that drives so much of in-person schooling at present.
On course offerings
Students are begging for classes that are more relevant to their lived experience. Overwhelmingly, kids designed schools in which history and knowledge of self was central. Some included classes in Black and Latinx history. Others included ethnic-studies courses. One student designed a pair of classes called “Learn About the World” and “Learn About Yourself,” with equal time given to each of those topics. Multiple students included “life skills,” “adulting,” or “financial literacy” classes in their schedules, in which students would learn how to manage their money, do taxes, apply for jobs, and manage a household. No student said that learning literacy or math or science wasn’t important, but they wanted those subjects held in the balance with classes whose relevance to their own lives was patently clear.
On their ideal teacher
Consistently, students sought out teachers who spoke more than one language so they could communicate effectively with a range of families. They wanted teachers who were funny, kind, patient, and knowledgeable. They sought teachers who came from backgrounds similar to their own, who could relate to their lived experiences. They wanted teachers who had both the time, and the willingness, to listen.
On the perfect classroom
The classrooms young people designed were vibrant and cozy. There were beanbags and couches instead of desks. The walls were covered with posters affirming the identities of all young people. Rooms were filled with natural light, plants, and the occasional class pet. Technology in classrooms was up-to-date and of the highest quality (not a Chromebook to be found!).
Students recognized clearly that mental health must be a priority in schools. In addition to guidance counselors, many students built support systems for students that included mentors and advisories. Others included academic supports like two teachers per class or after-school tutoring. And some students were insistent that schools have food pantries, clothing, and housing support on site for families that need a higher level of support.
Most students advocated a move away from letter grades, which they felt discourage students and do not motivate learning, but rather, impede it. Some advocated written narratives in which teachers provide clarity on both student strengths and areas for growth. Even more thought that regular one-on-one conferences between teachers and students where they discuss progress together was the best way to communicate about a student’s learning trajectory.
On the one thing they would change if only one thing could change
On this question, there was not consensus. Some students wanted to get rid of standardized testing. Others wanted better food in the cafeteria. Still others felt like a shift in the schedule would have the biggest impact. But one answer struck me as both simple and profound. The student argued that the biggest change schools could make would be, “Honestly, to just listen to what the students need. Listening will help you better understand how they can have a better learning environment and also grow a bond between teacher and student.”
What has struck me most as I look through these final projects is how little, in some ways, young people are asking us to change and yet how profoundly difficult it seems to be to get our school systems to change.
Young people want later start times. They want a more humane schedule in which they have opportunities to take a deep breath and to socialize with their peers. They want us to teach them content that fills them with meaning and purpose and that leaves them with a better understanding of who they are and the context in which they will live their lives. They want teachers who will listen to them, and be patient with them, and who share elements of their lived experience. They want classroom environments that are comfortable, rather than sterile. They want schools to be built at a scale that supports, rather than impedes, deep relationship-building. They want meaningful, actionable feedback, rather than demoralizing letters and numbers and scores.
I thought, when I started this project, that students might completely explode the idea of schooling. If I’m honest, that’s often what I find myself thinking we need to do. Instead, what my young people are saying they want from us is school ... but a more supportive, humane, and relevant version of it. They aren’t asking for anything more than precisely what they deserve and what we should have been giving them all along. Which begs the question: Why do we continue to be unable to do it?
Thanks to Neema and to her students for their contributions!
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