This spring, while educators were pivoting to new teaching frameworks from home, I witnessed students shifting into new roles too. I saw a brilliant high school student named Curtis help his father build a shed in the backyard and initiate a Black Lives Matter activism project. He was resourceful and creative, yet he was prevented from graduating with his classmates in June because he didn’t complete a half credit of an art class.
Another student had difficulty attending live sessions because she would often be up at 4 a.m. caretaking for a newborn sister with a single working parent at home. And another was responsible for cooking three days a week for a seven-person household.
In each of these examples, ingenuity, creativity and initiative were exercised outside of the formal context of the classroom. These students rose to the challenges demanded by an ongoing global pandemic, and the real world skills that they learned and applied should not be ignored simply because they do not fit into the current framework of seat time or grading. In fact, the remote learning made necessary by the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to deeply examine the foundations of our educational system and make some much needed improvements.
Remote learning brings to light many issues that divide privileged students from their marginalized peers. More than ever, technology, food security and Wi-Fi access continue to be frontline barriers to accessing quality education, which I see every day as the director of maker experiences and entrepreneurism at an inner city high school in Washington, D.C., serving 98 percent students of color, most on free and reduced lunch.
Racially divisive systems are prevalent in schools such as mine (and in all schools) through traditional grading structures, grade tracking, standardized testing and punitive disciplinary actions—all of which further disadvantage career and college opportunities for our students of color. If the call to dismantle racist policies is reflective of this moment in time, our role as educators should be to quickly meet students where they are at, and support students and families through creative crediting methods that give weight to the extensive learning that takes place outside of pop quizzes and school projects. We have the opportunity to provide students with agency to thrive during remote learning and beyond.
Pedagogy of Remote Learning
Remote learning should not be viewed as a virtual recreation of the in-person classroom. In any event, the current pandemic often does not allow this. There is a need for increased flexibility—live lessons and self-paced projects, new tools for self advocacy and creative tech platforms. More than ever, teachers and administrators are guiding, co-navigating and supporting students to make meaning of the experiences happening around us.
We are teaching our students how to learn. The opportunity to let students drive their learning in a way that is relevant to their current realities should be paramount. Many of our students are experiencing pandemic life in an intensified way. Working parents, high-risk multi-generational households, single parents, younger sibling care, financial pressures, job and food security, device sharing, all pose real pressures on today’s families. In recognition of this, we need to view assessments as a two-way process so that we can best support life and learning as it is happening. We are all in new territory.
Building a Responsive Framework
What if we built a flexible system responsive to these real-life demands that supports our students and families—offering them a way to tell us what they are doing and customizing a learning framework around that? It might take some creative imagining but it’s more than possible.
If we consider Curtis, who constructed the outbuilding with his father, we can recognize in his project the demonstration of applied math (geometry, spatial thinking, ratios, measuring), physics (power tool safety, material properties, jig making), project management (sequencing, material choice, budgeting) and engineering principles (electrical, plumbing, structural knowledge, construction techniques). He could also incorporate his knowledge of building codes, accessibility considerations, and CAD modeling. A final project could consist of a virtual tour of the new building during a showcase day, and his process could be assessed creatively through an online portfolio. Weekly Zoom share-outs and portfolio updates can allow teachers to track work and connect to standards.
For Naia, the student who helped care for her newborn sister, we can develop a family program that includes English language arts (reading, literacy skills) as well as the early childhood education and caregiving skills (fine motor skills, math, measuring, tactile experiences, games, assessing needs, time management) she will need to be successful at home and as she moves on to college or a career. Students can document and track growth through video diaries like Flipgrid and develop a scheduling calendar for family use.
For our students who assist with meal preparation, the lessons inside the kitchen are seemingly endless. Cooking chemistry (reactions, thermodynamics), math (measuring, proportions, scale factors), history and culture (storytelling, family celebration, traditions, geography and environmental impacts), foreign languages, budgeting (meal planning), nutrition (balanced meals and health), agriculture (growing food, foraging) and social entrepreneurism (develop a project addressing food security). Students might create a food blog to document meals and exchange favorite recipes with other students.
It is also important to provide creative and real-world opportunities for our disenfranchised students. Social justice enterprises serve powerful roles and can connect to history and culture, community engagement and civic duty. Side businesses and crisis relief can provide growth through entrepreneurial skills, communication, budgeting, project management, outreach, business planning and more. PPE production could utilize sewing skills, CAD and even developing equipment lending programs with schools or libraries.
In all of these examples, creativity, critical thinking, communication, and application of lessons learned are exhibited. Learning from these past experiences, students this semester have the opportunity to submit project ideas in the engineering course I am developing for their capstone work.
This framework is intended to be adaptable; every institution will have different mechanisms and opportunities to support student learning in a new way. While this may seem like more work, there are ways to scaffold how we get there. Credit support can happen through systems we already have in place, including internships, hustle points, credit recovery, community service and more.
New Times, New Approaches
By listening to where our students and families are and recognizing the unjust pressures and divisive systems in place against people of color, we have an opportunity to learn and grow our community by allowing students to replenish themselves and take care of real life needs at home.
We as educators should recognize that there is value, worth, and credit in these experiences and it is our job to be creative, build frameworks, learning modules, and opportunities that allow students to do these things and be recognized in a way that translates into academic grades to support our students flourishing and attaining success. We need not ask more of our families and students with demands tethered to a racially unjust system; we need to support, engage, exchange and activate our students by truly listening and responding creatively.