We know that there is much we won't be able to control this coming school year. We also know that this is the world we are being called to help prepare our young people to enter. We should be equipping them to build a more sustainable future, one where the decisions we make now recognize the value of living beings for many generations to come. To do so, we must give our students the safety to connect with each other and their learning communities—even if they must do so online.
At my community school, we have chosen to ground our back-to-school approach in deep, meaningful connections between students and staff and root our learning partnerships in the things that matter most to our learners in their communities. Our experiences with a learner-centered, community-grounded approach have demonstrated that when students develop a strong sense of identity and agency in one area, they are able to transfer the strategies they develop to other contexts. This strategy has proven effective even as the pandemic has challenged it.
Jill Gurtner and a recent graduate of Clark Street Community School discuss how to encourage students in the productive struggle of learning.
This fall, we will keep every student connected to a small and stable advisory group that serves a purpose well beyond simply providing a "home base" and a space for announcements. This structure gives students a sense of belonging, validation, and a deeper understanding of themselves as learners. It is the place where each individual develops their sense of self, their strengths, their natural talents within a group, and their ability to collaborate.
Only by accessing the support of others can students master the skills to thrive within a diverse community. Maintaining this advisory space through our emergency closing this spring was a lifeline for many of our learners—students and adults.
Each student will also join a learning cohort based in one of two interdisciplinary learning strands that will integrate English/language arts, math, science, social studies, wellness, and the arts. One cohort (Growing Our Futures) will utilize our school garden and a study of philosophy; the other (Coming of Age) will be grounded in a study of human relationships and youth agency.
Each strand will have an online course to foster the predictability and flexibility necessary to learn, while ensuring that students can successfully navigate an online learning environment. Additionally, each strand will offer students the opportunity and support to connect—either synchronously online or face to face as we are able—to their own identity, the experiences of others, and to a learning community. Together, our students become better readers, thinkers, designers, communicators, and problem-solvers.
In the middle of the summer, I joined a few of my colleagues for a "weeding party" in our school garden. It was the first time I had seen and interacted with some of them in a nondigital format in months. What a joy it was to connect, even at a distance.
As we each worked to cultivate the soil in our part of the garden, I learned of the extraordinary planning they were doing for the fall. Each educator had considered the likely constraints and challenges we all would face. But they had found purpose in what mattered most—preparing our students for the real issues they are facing—and had connected with others to realize this purpose.
All around the country, school leaders like me are creating and updating plans to prepare for an uncertain school year. Incredible passion, care, and dedication are going into this work. And there is also fear—a lot of fear.
Schools all over the country are being put in truly untenable situations with an unimaginable amount of responsibility. Because we all tend to turn to what we know best in times of uncertainty, we leaders are often relying on a set of tools that are not well designed for the current context, and the stakes are high. I have been a part of plenty of planning meetings with well-intended leaders driven by fear and limitation as well, lately.
What a contrast I experienced in that school garden. Both groups were dealing with enormous uncertainty and legitimate fear. Both are made up of intelligent, dedicated, passionate people who care deeply about young people. It seems the difference lies in what is driving the decisions. As humans, we have both an incredible capacity for fear and an incredible capacity for creativity. As educators charged with preparing our young people for what will surely be a future of continued uncertainty, we must choose wisely.
By focusing on connections to make the learning environment "safe enough" for every learner to engage in the productive struggle of learning, we are honoring that the deepest learning is rooted in real-world challenges. But we must also remember that it is joy and a sense of belonging that fuel that productive struggle. Every school community must foster that safety to allow for the risk of learning and growth. I am not sure there is anything more valuable that we can model for our young people.
Published in Print: September 9, 2020, as Developing a Sense of Self—Together