Something I have really missed over the last year has been gatherings at the table. I love to cook and bake for family and friends. I love long lingering meals in the backyard and big family dinners. I love family-style meals with my work family in our office. I have been thinking a lot about why I miss those so much. It the sense of community that I feel in those moments. It means something that people take the time to gather, take the time to prepare food for each other, and pause whatever else is going on to sit and listen to one another. A shared meal is a community experience that brings people together in a beautiful way. I had the honor of being invited to a bake-off with a class of third graders a few weeks ago. I couldn’t stay the whole time, but I was able to be there at the start. I watched almost fifty young people in an online session that were so excited to be there. Nearly every student had their camera on and enthusiastically asked questions, mostly all at once as third graders do when they are excited.
Two classes started doing bake-offs together during emergency remote teaching to continue to build community no matter what the circumstances. They have continued doing shared activities around food or other common interests that are amazing. As we moved to a hybrid model, one of the teachers wanted to continue that work, so she asked if she could get bread machines for their classroom. She wrote this wonderful blog post about the experience of baking together as a community with a focus on the skills the learners are gaining through the process.
What stuck out to me the most was how it all started. Last spring, I was watching our families post things online about how they were teaching their young children to cook, doing home repair projects, building and making things, and participating in the #epictomatochallenge with the extra time at home. We wanted to find a way to take everything our teachers, learners, and families were doing from home and tie it to their school experience. Our teachers found new passions and spent time doing the things they were already passionate about. Our learners were developing new interests or perfecting things that they were already passionate about. We wanted to find a way to live our strategic plan, empower our learners to share their interests with us, and engage some learners who were starting to disconnect.
We have been working for the last several years on embedding the Deeper Learning competencies into every single classroom as our way to prepare our learners to live life on their own terms after graduation. The competencies focus on the skills needed for life success- content mastery, communication, problem-solving, collaboration, self-direction, and most importantly, having an academic mindset, which means feeling such a strong sense of belonging that you want to push yourself to try new things and work hard to achieve your goals. We always look for ways to move that work forward and have seen pockets of unbelievable success over the last few years. Watching the way our community united around the tomato challenge and watching what was happening at home on social media prompted us to move to a four-year-old kindergarten through twelfth-grade passion project.
It was amazing to see the increase in school attendance, the incredible things our learners and families worked on together, and the shared experience across an entire community. We had learners gardening, making movies, participating in online challenges, doing home repair projects, cooking, learning about broadcasting, and many, many more. While our learners were investing their own interests, they were also learning to start with an idea, get feedback from the teachers and other experts, ask probing questions, iterate again and again, write lengthy reflections, use new technology tools to share their knowledge, and produce artifacts about what they had learned that they were very proud to share with an authentic audience. It is that learning experience, tied to academic standards, that we want them to have every day. Watching the momentum of that project carry over into this school year has been inspiring.
Our staff started sending me copies of their own passion projects last spring. They were doing some new things and some things that they have always loved. Watching adults articulate their learning process with reflections while they learned how to use new technology tools to share what they had learned was fantastic. It became a shared process for learners and staff. It pushed all staff, including teachers, educational assistants, school leaders, and our facilities staff, to share parts of themselves with our learners and invite our learners to do the same. We are always looking for access points to move our Deeper Learning work forward. This became an amazing window for staff and learners to see the power of authentic, learner-driven work.
I received a lot of feedback on the projects and the whole process and still do almost a year later. Some of the families’ feedback was that their learner needed a more structured learning method, and therefore this was not working for them. Some shared that they were worried about the level of rigor involved. Some were concerned that our teachers had not had enough training in project-based learning to ensure standards were embedded. Many families and learners thanked us for taking a step that helped their child feel empowered. One parent shared that she started the project concerned about rigor and ended up watching her child learn many new skills, build his confidence, stretch himself to do more and more, and connect to his father through common interests. She saw the academic success he experienced in many different ways by the time his first project was done. He went on to do several more throughout the summer and fall. That learner started something at school that inspired him to connect and go deeper- so powerful.
Staff also shared some equally thought-provoking reflections. Many of them started the process being frustrated that they were asked to make a shift during such an uncertain time but ended up inspired by what our learners could do. They started to talk about how the strategies they would use to empower our students identified as gifted and talented were the same ones they should be using with our learners identified as having special education needs. One teacher wanted to learn about digital storytelling to engage and deepen the learning for “advanced” students and discovered that she would use the same method to create innovative ways to engage reluctant readers. Another teacher shared she felt overwhelmed at the start of the project but watched her learners come alive as it moved along. She shared that one learner wanted to learn about broadcasting. This led to a new connection with the band teacher, who also knows a lot about sound engineering. He worked collaboratively with the learner and teacher to share what he knows and connected the learner to a local expert who does a professional podcast for the GreenBay Packers for an online meeting to learn more. This kind of cross-curricular, authentic learning was happening for thousands of learners across our community.
One of our leaders, who was new to us last year, had such inspiring reflection as he was reviewing the learners’ projects and writing about them for his own blog. He chose to review the projects from one of our Advanced Placement courses. He shared:
“That is when I had my a-ha moment. It didn’t matter what student I picked. I didn’t have to think hard and critically about what students would or wouldn’t look good on the blog. They all had a helpful, reflective, communicative project that they did with fidelity. You couldn’t tell a “5” student on their exam to “1”, or an “A” student to a “B”.
This is what the vision should be not for 70 students, but 1000. This is what Central should strive for. I should be able to go into any classroom, any period, and I wouldn’t notice SPED, remedial, or different opportunities. All students would have access and output that would be equitable. It was a powerful feeling for myself.”
All feedback is important as it informs our practice. Our goal is never to make sure every learner has the same experience. It is that we find a way for the right learning experience for each learner at every moment we can. As we create more access points for our learners to become empowered, we will find the right ones for each learner over time. It will always mean balancing structured activities, lectures, and a more traditional approach to teaching combined with multiple ways to investigate, explore, try, fail, and try again with opportunities to share what they know and get feedback. Finding the right balance, being patient with the time it may take, and ensuring the learners have the skills needed to create their own pathway with our support is what creates an empowered learner experience.
The number of staff members who sent us videos, reflections, and samples of learner projects was impressive. They were so proud of their learning communities that they sent emails, posted things on social media, and have used what they had learned in planning instruction for the future. That community of bakers grew out of some of the moments we shared as a community last spring that they will remember for a lifetime. The power in that is immeasurable.