One of the many things I have really missed in the last year is my time in schools talking to our learners. I typically spend about sixty percent of my time in classrooms with teachers and students in a “normal” year. I have missed that chance to hear about their learning and see the learner experience through their eyes. While we were still virtual, I was able to join some online classes, but it wasn’t quite the same as the connections I could make face-to-face. Now that we have been back in our physical schools for a few months, I am cautious not to go into too many classrooms in person each week as that would be tough to contact trace. I am affectionately known as “that lady” in many of our schools. I hear kids say things like, “That lady is back. Get ready; she’s going to ask you a lot of questions.” They all learn my name while I am there and then usually forget it between visits. I miss being “that lady”!
I was lucky enough to get the chance to be the substitute for one of our amazing teachers recently. It was a learning community of eighteen five and six-year-olds who were having their first day of in-person learning on the day I was there. It was the first time all year they had been together as an entire class. It was such an honor to get to welcome them and attempt to follow the beautifully written lesson plans from the teacher. As we did an opening community circle and moved in to do some opinion writing, a sense of incredible pride overwhelmed me. Although these learners had been virtual for most of the year and then hybrid for a few weeks, they had such a strong sense of community. Two students were new to the class that day, and the others were anxious to welcome them and show them the ropes. With a stranger in the room, they were comfortable sharing what they know and talking through challenges. They were excited to show what they had learned and made sure they included everyone. I watched what an empowered five or six-year-old could do and was blown away. They had a sense of belonging and a desire to work through anything. They were vocal when they got stuck and exactly what help they needed to be successful.
I sent this to the teacher at the end of the day:
Thank you for allowing me to be a guest in your beautiful learning community today. You have obviously done some amazing work to create a space where your learners feel confident and included.
They ranked themselves, and 10 gave the class a thumbs up on the day, 6 gave themselves a thumbs medium, and 2 were at speech when we took the poll. We collected some evidence of why we really should get a thumbs-up:
- We welcomed new friends kindly into our learning community.
- We did a great job on our reading.
- We did a great job on our opinion writing.
- We listened right away when we needed to come in from recess.
- We were flexible in our thinking as so much was new today.
I was so impressed with their ability to advocate for themselves, support each other when things got tough, and be reflective in their work. They were joyful and curious all day long and yet not afraid to challenge things at the same time. I also asked them for feedback throughout the day on how I was doing. They fired me twice in the morning but then hired me back to be the substitute again at the end of the day.
A few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to host an open meeting with some of our high school students. I asked them about what was going well for them this year and what else they need from school. They were as articulate and honest as the five and six-year-olds. We talked openly about how they felt about virtual and hybrid learning, where this year was challenging in and out of school, and how they felt about our curriculum. Many of them were happy to be back in school and some were anxious to know if we would have a virtual option next year because that has worked better for them. They had many positive things to say about their teachers and their opportunities in our schools.
They also gave me some things to work on. They asked that we incorporate more Mindfulness lessons throughout the day. They do Mindfulness activities in their homerooms, but not often enough to be really useful. They asked for classes in mental wellness to find balance and better understand mental health issues. A few of the learners in the meeting are on our Hope Squad at their school and shared how powerful it is to really understand mental health needs as well as how to look out for their peers.
I asked if they felt prepared for life after high school and, for the most part, they felt confident except in the area of financial literacy. One of our graduation requirements is to take a financial literacy course, but they didn’t feel like the course goes far enough. We will be asking students to join us in curriculum writing for the course going forward as they know exactly what they need. Many of them talked about project-based learning experiences that empower them to find their voices in school and learn what they want to do after high school.
There were about forty students in the online meeting from our three high schools who were participating in a variety of opportunities at school. Almost every student spoke up and shared something. The confidence I could hear in their responses was impressive especially given that it was a very mixed group of students with different interests, aptitudes, and school experiences. No matter where they were coming from and how successful they were by traditional measures, they were all able to speak up for real and honest things that they need from school. I will be hosting a few more before the end of the school year and will continue it next year. Hearing truly empowered learners advocate for themselves and recognize success was incredible.
Each year, we go to our community to share what has been happening in our schools with our finances, learning, and upcoming developments in our district. Last year, I invited groups of learners to attend the sessions to speak about our work. If we are working to empower them, then they should be the ones sharing their own progress. This year, the meetings were virtual, so it was even easier to facilitate learners’ attendance to discuss their learner experience. In one presentation, a ten-year-old asked to share his screen to show the community a video game he created in math class to demonstrate his knowledge. Teachers shared videos of learners creating and making things who could articulate the standards they had mastered or the content knowledge they had gained through what they built. We saw art projects that demonstrated knowledge of literature and learners talking about using new technology tools to create podcasts to create a dystopian universe. All of the examples demonstrated rigorous learning tied to the interest of our learners. It was so powerful!
We didn’t tell the teachers which students to choose, just that we wanted a group from elementary, intermediate, and high school at each of the three meetings. Our staff choose a wonderfully diverse group of learners. We had learners with special needs, some choosing virtual learning, learners in our advanced placement classes, and learners who have needed additional support in school. It was so incredible that no matter which student I asked, they could all share how they feel inspired and supported at school. They talked about what Deeper Learning means to them and how their learning is about trying, getting feedback, and iterating until they get an artifact that shows what they know. They were confident and articulate and so excited to present to an audience. You could hear the pride they felt in their work and themselves.
Our empowered learners are also starting to challenge us more, which I love! They send emails to our Superintendent and me advocating for what they want to see in our schools. They come to our school board meeting and speak in open comment about how they think we should do something. Watching them feel the confidence to speak up, ask for what they need, and challenge ideas they disagree with is inspiring. We aren’t always able to grant what they are asking for when they ask for it, but they are helping us shape how we allocate some resources and write curriculum in new ways.
I love the quote from AJ Juliani, “Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.” Our learners, at all ages and learning formats, are starting to demonstrate that they are ready for anything, and that we’ve helped prepare them to do it all with confidence and grace.