Reimaging School | Steve Barkley

Reimaging School

In an interview with Learningforward, Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shared the following:

“The challenge with the pandemic is that, for a lot of people, there has been this sense of, “When can we get back to what we had before?” But in the case of schools, it’s pretty clear that schools weren’t working that well for a lot of students and teachers even pre-pandemic. So, we want some things to go back to the way they were before, but we want some things to be different.”

What should stay the same and what do we want to be different? That is the question being explored by many educators engaged in summer school programs and planning for the fall.

Metha described two ways educators are reacting to the experiences of the last year.

  • For some people who were dissatisfied with schools before — who felt that things were too rushed and that there was not enough opportunity to get to know students — it has provided a new opportunity to rethink practices and redevelop routines in schools.
  • For others, the stress or threat created a tendency to freeze up and be resistant to change. They have seen that it’s so hard and complicated to run schools right now that they are saying, “Let me at least try not to change the pedagogy, the curriculum, the materials.”

Certainly, the discussion of what to keep and what to change should include the voices of students. Larry Ferlazzo writing for Education Week, How Students Want to Reimagine Education Next Year featured thoughts from 8th-grade students in Boston who finished the year with a Reimaging Education project.

The biggest change school 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 the bond between teacher and student”  (from an 8th-grade student’ reimagine education project)

Civics Teacher, Neema Avashia, created a unit that engaged students in reflecting, researching, and creating. They began defining their own educational experiences with high and low spots and interviewing their peers to identify similarities and differences. Then they researched innovative education opportunities from schools across the country and heard the thinking of education reformers on podcasts and videos. Working alone or in groups, students created a design for a school “that would work better for all young people.”

Avashia summarized the following common threads in students’ designs:

  • later start times and more humane schedules with opportunities to take a deep breath and to socialize.
  • content that fills them with meaning and purpose and leaves them with a better understanding of who they are and the context in which they will live their lives.
  • teachers who will listen to them, and be patient with them, and share elements of their lived experience.
  • classroom environments that are comfortable, rather than sterile.
  • schools at a scale that supports, rather than impedes, deep relationship-building.
  • meaningful, actionable feedback, rather than demoralizing letters, numbers, and scores.

An article, What Students Are Saying About How to Improve American Education from Current Events Conversation with the New York Times identifies several elements that align with the students from Boston:

  • Put less pressure on students—Comments on several different topics were connected to this “pressure”. Some students felt a focus on grades and testing directed them away from learning. There’s a sense that teachers are continually trying to stuff more content into less time. (I’m certain many teachers would agree) Many educators became increasingly conscious of students’ social-emotional concerns during virtual and hybrid instruction. Will we remember and modify our practices as we return to classrooms?
  • Make lessons more engaging—There were two elements addressed in this area: what and how. Students are looking for connections between what they are learning and their current and future lives. They are searching for a connection. There is also a request to have a more active role in the learning process. More focus on doing the problem-solving work of learning with support rather than the teacher delivering the lesson.
  • Create a better environment—When you walk into the school does it feel like a place you want to be? What’s the emotional environment the teacher creates as students are greeted? What are all the messages students are receiving from the environment? Avashia’s students suggested a key was having teachers who had the time and the willingness to listen.
  • Support students’ families — It’s recognized that students need multiple supportive adults to build their successful futures. Family support for students is important and some families (many more than we may think) need to be supported in order to provide the student support. Some of Avashia’s students included food pantries and housing support along with strong guidance services in their school designs.

Social Connections

The students in the NY Times conversation pointed to another interesting suggestion. Praise for great teachers. Several students pointed to individual teachers who had made big changes in their learning. Some described a current teacher and others as high school students mentioned a second-grade teacher whose impact was still present.

This is an important time to be bringing students’ interpretations of their experiences into our decisions as educators. Look for ways for their voices to be continually heard.

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