[So… I suppose a silver lining of this crisis for me is that it’s kick-started me into writing again. This is the third post in a series about this moment in time. The first two are Taking Care of the Kids, Advisory and Crisis and “Doing School” in the Time of Coronavirus.]

I want to expand a brief Tweet-thread I wrote the other day.

Districts all over the country are realizing that we cannot grade in the ways we always have. Districts are going ungraded or doing Pass / Fail or some version of “Grading Lite.” And there are roughly a hundred ramifications to those decision that we’re going to have to figure out – how it affects promotion and graduation status, how schools figure out final grades for the year, etc… – but many of the first ramifications that leap to most folks’ minds deal with the apparatus of school. Schools do serve many functions in society – and yes, one of them is deals with the credentialing of kids through a degree-seeking program.

And because of those carrots we hold out – grades, advancement to the next year, class rank, graduation – we lean on the compulsory nature of school to varying degrees. Yes, every good teacher I have ever known has tried to make their lessons interesting, and the whole project-based learning movement has been about making the work that we ask kids to worthwhile and interesting.

But there’s still a lot of the “Game of School” in every school – SLA is no exception. I’ve always explained it to kids this way – we have to be here, so we have an obligation to make our time together and the work we do meaningful. But it starts with the recognition that we have to be here.

Now they don’t.

In many, many districts kids will be held harmless from the work in one form or another. And again, I think that’s the right decision. But it does raise really interesting and difficult questions for all of us. First and foremost is this:

What does mean to be a school when work is no longer mandatory?

Fortunately, there are models out there for us – the Free School / Democratic School movement has been around for a very long time, and models like Summerhill and the Free School movement have modeled a version of this kind of education, albeit face to face for years, and they illuminate both the promise and the challenge of what we face. Importantly, even as we look for examples of this in our educational histories, we need to remember that the models we would look to were chosen by students and families. This is not that, and makes it all the more challenging to do this well.

With that, I wanted to expand a bit on some of the questions from that tweet-thread and, in doing so, probably find more new questions as well. With that, here’s my take on that first question…

  1. How do we create the opportunity for kids to explore high relevancy concepts that are of interest to them with no fear of “getting it wrong.”

I think there’s two important pathways to consider this question – the first involves still working within the traditional lens of what we teach in school – blurring and breaking the boundaries of our traditional disciplines, but still thinking in terms of science, math, literature, history, etc… If we look at that lens, we can think critically about the question, “Why would a student want to learn this? Do this? Create this?” And for some kids who love a subject area, the answer is easy, but the better way to engage in that question is to truly take this moment in time to show kids how the work we ask them to do right now will help them make better decisions as a citizen / scholar / person right now. There may never be another moment where teaching exponential functions is so relevant to our lives. Looking throughout history at how governments have responded to crisis provides a powerful lens on the current moment. And if there was ever a moment for choice-based readings and student-organized book clubs, that moment is now.

And with any of these ideas, this is a moment to get kids to see themselves as explorers of ideas. Creating space for discussion groups, book chats, exploratory writing, student-driven artifacts of learning all create space for kids to play in the world of these ideas and concepts in ways that are not as often explored in traditional classroom spaces. It will be harder to quantify, but right now, we don’t have to in all the ways we have in the past. That might mean — will mean — that fewer kids will do everything they are asked to do, but what it hopefully means is that kids find ways to explore the topics of school in ways they haven’t before.

The other thing to consider is that now can be a moment in time to ask kids to take the leap to learn something they have wanted to learn and haven’t had the chance or time to. Want to learn podcasting? Come up with a topic and learn it. Is there a genre of reading you love and want to read more of? Write in the style of? Suddenly feel compelled to learn everything there is to know about viruses? Got a programming language you want to explore? Now is the moment… and kids have long learned outside of school, but now school has an opportunity to value that and recognize that in ways that hasn’t always been taken seriously before.

As schools, we have a moment where we can ask kids to create artifacts of the learning beyond traditional school work (with some reflection attached to it) and share them with the larger school community and larger community via whatever modality they choose and linking them to either a blog engine, GoogleSite, Portfolium, LMS, etc. And if kids are using smart folksonomies, they can see who else is doing interesting learning along similar topics.

Yes, we’ve seen this idea before – lots of folks at one time or another were playing with Google 20% time (even as we learned that it wasn’t all that well-executed at Google), but for all kinds of reasons – many of them dealing with the compulsory nature of school (and work) – schools found it hard to manage. Because it is. But now we don’t have to. We can create a structure for kids to fill if they so choose, and because we don’t have to worry about if they do it during first period or fifth period, we have a moment where the old constraints aren’t there, so we can put this out there as a ways for kids to build their own sense of what it’s going to mean to be a learner for when their lives are no longer bound by the schedule and routine of school..

For SLA, we’re going to try do do both of these things. We want to make sure we are creating the conditions by which kids really do want to continue doing the subject-specific learning because we do value the work we ask kids to do, and we’re going to see what kids show us that they are doing beyond the traditional boundaries of what we think of as school. And the hope is that that process of reflecting upon it and sharing it will elevate the learning as well. The more we can help kids see themselves as empowered learners right now, able to tap into their agency, the better chance we have of helping them through to the other side of this crisis.

And with that, I’m going to incentivize my own sharing by saving questions two, three and four for another blog post (or two) and publish what I’ve got so far. You can help push my learning (and anyone else’s who comes by to read) by leaving your thoughts in the comments.

Stay safe.