It is the first day of school, 2020. This year has not been like other years. This school year will not be like other school years. Jonathan is a sophomore in high school, and his freshman year was upturned by the arrival of the coronavirus, which shuttered his school, as it did schools across the United States and around the world. Jonathan was forced into a hurriedly assembled virtual learning experience that was a struggle for students and adults alike. Over the summer, Jonathan’s school district explored having students return for in-person classes two days a week in the fall, but growing COVID-19 case numbers eventually convinced them that this simply wasn’t safe for students, teachers, staff, or their families. So Jonathan is returning to virtual learning for school this year. 

What Happened

Jonathan’s school, Community High School, is a multi-racial school in a multi-racial community. The student body is largely Black and Latinx. Over the past few years, the school staff have started to think more about how to be culturally responsive and connected to their students, and the pandemic, as well as the uprising this summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd, have inspired them to really invest in these culturally responsive practices. The school staff reached out to Jonathan and other students over the summer to ask what had worked and not worked for them during virtual learning the previous spring. The school asked what kind of class schedule and learning supports would help them most during the coming year. And they asked what supports Jonathan needed in dealing with the challenges of staying home and the economic impacts on his family, including determining his need for a laptop. 

His school contacted him several weeks prior to the start of the school year to coordinate his pickup of the laptop, and to coordinate the availability of high-speed internet access so that he can get online. The school also assigned a mentor to Jonathan and a group of 10 other students, who will form a home group for the entirety of this school year, and Jonathan’s mentor Ms. Robbins already reached out to him to connect and find out about Jonathan’s interests, family, aspirations, and struggles during the at-home portion of last school year.

The New Year

Now the first day of school has arrived. Jonathan logs on just before 9 am and joins his home group with Ms. Robbins and 8 of the 10 other students assigned to the group. None of the students are Jonathan’s close friends, but he has had classes with 5 or 6 of them before. Ms. Robbins welcomes the students and allows time for each of them to introduce themselves — their names, something about their hobbies and interests, how they are feeling on this first day of school. Ms. Robbins engages the students in a community building game, gives them an overview of the first day of school, and helps them all join a whole-school meeting. 

About 900 of the school’s 1000 students have logged on for this first day so far, and school staff are reaching out to those who have not arrived, based on communication from the home group teachers. These 900 students have now joined a welcome assembly to kick off the school year. Music is playing, and a student is acting as emcee to greet everyone. As the assembly officially begins, the school plays a video showing clips of various students stating their wishes for the new school year. The principal welcomes the students and lets them know what they should expect for today, for this week, and as best she can say in these unpredictable times, for the year as a whole. At the end of the assembly, she asks all students to create something to share with their home groups that represents their hopes for the coming school year — what they want to do, who they want to be, where they want to go in their learning. 

After the welcome meeting is done, around 10 am, students have a break and time to work on their mini-projects. However, Jonathan’s younger brother Cory is also on break from his school and Jonathan checks in with him instead. At 11 am, it is time for Jonathan to rejoin his home group. Ms. Robbins welcomes the students back and acknowledges that some of them may have had time to work on their mini-projects and some may not, and gives them all a few minutes to either add to their projects or collect their thoughts to share. Then, she asks each of the students to share with the group about their hopes for the school year. Some students talk for awhile and speak passionately. Others say just a few sentences. After each student speaks, Ms. Robbins asks the others to recognize that student and honor their vision and contribution to the group. 

Next, students have time for lunch. Jonathan and Corey eat together, and then it is time for Jonathan to attend his first academic classes. Community High has decided, based on student and parent feedback, to move to a block schedule, where students only have four classes per semester in this virtual setting. The district believes that students will be better able to manage their workload and responsibilities if they can focus their work in a smaller number of classes. So this afternoon, Jonathan has a virtual meeting with each class. Jonathan logs on, meets the teacher and students, and is immediately engaged in classroom activities related to the content. In his math class, Integrated Math 2, for example, the teacher shows a graph of COVID-19 cases in the area from February through May and asks the students to predict what the case numbers looked like in June, July, and August. The students are asked to click into virtual breakout sessions, and Jonathan talks with three of his classmates in a small group to make their collective prediction and discuss the reasoning that supports their prediction. Then, the small groups return to the large class meeting, where the teacher asks each group to present to the class. 

In future days, students will have just two classes each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each including some time to connect with the teacher and students and some time to work independently. Based on input from students and parents, as well as research into practices that engage students, Community High has reoriented all of its classes to center in project-based learning, and each student will be engaged in a student-driven project this year, with important course content taught in the context of students’ needs to complete their projects. The teacher will act as a guide and mentor for students to learn from their projects. 

At the end of this first day, Jonathan still has many reservations about what this school year will be. This is only natural in the face of so much change and uncertainty. But he also can sense a glimmer of hope, the sense that Community High is changing its practice to something more focused on his interests, his culture, his beliefs — on him. And while that doesn’t make up for everything that is different during this time of pandemic, it shows that his teachers and his school are listening. And that matters.

What This Means for Us

We would all like to be looking forward to the opening of fully in-person school this fall. That is not the reality we face at this time, and so we must plan for what we can do in these circumstances that will best serve our students and their families. My description of Community HS provides my vision for what the opening of the year could look like in a school that is responsive to its students — responding to their developmental needs, their cultures, their identities. This school is not perfect, but it draws from what we know young people need to support their growth. This includes close relationships between adults and young people and between the young people themselves. It includes the adults’ awareness of how culture influences them, their students, and all interactions between people. It includes the construction of learning experiences that are grounded in students’ interests and passions and that are expansive enough to propel young people into taking on new challenges. It includes the adults’ ability to leverage their relationships with young people into true partnerships, with young people and adults learning side by side. And it includes the construction of a learning space that acknowledges each young person’s identity out of school and invites them to connect that identity with what is happening in school and in the wider world, and gives them the vision for changing how they interact with every space. These are lofty ideals, imperfectly enacted by fallible educators. And they center in the principle that we adult educators are partners in the education of young people like Jonathan. We must ask them about their experience in and outside of school, and we must collaborate with them in designing spaces and activities that honor their selves, their cultures, and their truths. 

This will not be easy. But as others have said, the way we have been doing school has not been working for many of our students. We can use this shift in circumstances to make a shift in our focus and our intentions — from a school that does education to students to a school that does education with students, from a school that focuses on test scores above all to one that focuses on authentic measures of both learning and feeling, from a school that is about skill acquisition to one that is about learning skills in the service of big ideas. And we can do all of these things in a virtual setting, we can do them in a hybrid setting that includes virtual and in-person classes, and we can continue to do them when we eventually return to in-person school full-time. 

We must center all schooling in the brilliance, passions, and needs of our students. If we do this now — if we shift from covering content to uncovering the big questions in our disciplines, if we focus less on our subjects and more on our relationships — we can make virtual schooling, in-person schooling, or a combination of the two more humane and supportive for this year. By doing this, we will also set the stage for a different kind of education when we return to in-person schooling full-time. We will be prepared to continue our focus on relationships, on big ideas, on our students themselves. And while no one would wish for a pandemic to force us to make that change, we can use this crisis as an opportunity to do what is right and good for students and for our communities. Let’s follow the example of Community High, and give the support that they are giving to Jonathan. Let’s create student-focused schools together. 

This vision is inspired by three main sources. The first is Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. Ms. Hammond lays out the research and provides the inspiration to orient our schools and curricula around our students’ selves and culture. The second is the Buck Institute’s work on Project-Based Learning. The third is the research on the Foundations of Young Adult Success from the UChicago Consortium on School Research. Thanks to all of these brilliant individuals and groups for furthering my understanding of what is best for students.

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