Not Your Average Coffee Shop
Walking into Pinwheel Coffee, there are a handful of sensory experiences that immediately summon your attention to the fact you are not inside an ordinary coffee shop.
Enveloped in the smell of house-made chai, you’ll find yourself navigating through a sea of adolescent humans—one of whom likely took your order, while another worked quickly to make it. As you take a seat by the window, hot coffee in hand, you notice a group of young people sitting at a nearby table working collaboratively on a project.
You begin getting more curious about what is happening around you. It’s not every day you find yourself in a coffee shop where adolescents outnumber adults. Why aren’t these kids at school?
You gaze at the back wall of the coffee shop and notice bright blue and orange vinyl lettering on a mammoth decal; it reads “Pinwheel Coffee: Radically changing the way business, education, and community intersect.”
Wait, “education?” you wonder. Is this some kind of school?
The answer is yes, but certainly not in the conventional sense of the word. You’re at Embark Education, a learner-centered microschool embedded within Pinwheel Coffee and the bike shop next door, Framework Cycles. Every young person busying around the coffee shop is engaged in an integrated learning experience, where you, the customer, are playing a part in their learning.
Embark Education has been open and operating since 2019 and has provided over 50 adolescent students hands-on learning experiences in a “real world” environment. The evolution of Embark in the years since its inception has been shaped by profound learnings—and by more than a few pivots. Each pivot has been a crucial impetus to propel us to where we are today and to inform where we are headed in the future.
If we could create the conditions and context at the intersection of business and learning, while empowering youth to have learning experiences of consequence, then community and the adolescent experience could shift together.
Ambitious Beginnings and the Transformative Lessons Learned
Pinwheel Coffee, which predates Embark, was started in 2017, born out of an ambitious attempt to provide students the opportunity to learn in a real setting, while also enabling them to take ownership of the business. Deep in our foundation is a belief in adolescents’ brilliance and a belief that middle school is a crucial time in education when schools need to look, feel, and behave differently. We knew that if we could create the conditions and context at the intersection of business and learning, while empowering youth to have learning experiences of consequence, then community and the adolescent experience could shift together, rather than in artificial silos. And so, our parent organization, Great Work, Inc., partnered with a local Montessori high school to build out a coffee shop that could provide students with a variety of authentic learning experiences.
Maria Montessori had already envisioned a version of real world learning for adolescents. She referred to it as the “erdkinder” and believed that adolescents should not attend a conventional school but should, rather, work on a farm. Pinwheel Coffee was intended to take the farm experience in Montessori education and move it into an urban environment, where students could actively engage in the community.
The students of our partner school helped design the space and took part in shaping the overall flow of shop operations. Though the shop was fully staffed by adult baristas, we quickly discovered a variety of ways to bring students behind the counter. This foundation paved the way to our current approach—mostly through enabling us to discover what didn’t work. Learning from that has led us to where we are today.
There were many roadblocks and hurdles we had to get around, but none were more significant than time, or more specifically, a lack of time. Because of the students’ schedule constraints, our partnership with the local Montessori school fell short of its full potential. Groups of students would come to the shop for a six-week term, and during that time, they would only visit two to three days each week, for just a little more than an hour each day. This left little time to get a new group-oriented to the space and started on any meaningful project before their time with us was over, resulting in unfinished projects and little ownership from the students.
One of the rather intuitive projects we hoped to engage students in was for them to come up with a new seasonal drink that could be featured on Pinwheel’s menu. As to be expected from these first attempts, a majority of drink proposals had some element that made them unfeasible—unprofitability, execution difficulty, poor taste, or all of the above. Operating under the time constraints of the students’ schedules, we were left with little time for coaching to help them refine their proposals into viable menu items. Coupled with unclear expectations for the adults about who should coach the students on improving their ideas—the baristas or educators or both—even getting what we saw as a relatively straightforward project to the finish line became impossible.
Once the first term ended, we were present to two key findings: There was a ton of potential in this business-based learning idea, and we needed more time with the students. This was just an iteration, not a reason to give up and go home. What we didn’t know at the time was that this iteration would be a crucial stepping stone to propel us to the creation of Embark Education.
There was a ton of potential in this business-based learning idea, and we needed more time with the students.
The Inception of Embark Education
Steeped in our learnings from our first iteration at Pinwheel, we had a clearer and bolder vision. Embark would be a learner-centered micro middle school housed in real businesses—it would be a place for learning to be relevant, contextualized, and easily accessible via embedded experiences in Pinwheel Coffee and Framework Cycles, a small bike shop neighboring Pinwheel. In this way, we would remove some of the self-imposed and invisible barriers of education, such as traditional master schedules, and instead, we would work from competencies, rather than standards. Learners would be centered and honored as part of these small business communities.
Of course, clarity of vision does not automatically equate to high quality execution.
At first, the ideas for embedded and integrated learning opportunities were easy to uncover. Coffee beans are grown in various regions around the world, so one might envision an adolescent researching ways to ethically source coffee beans from somewhere like Central America and having that, in turn, inform the beans used at Pinwheel. Cycling is a great alternative to motorized vehicles, so, again, one might envision students conducting market research and engaging in advocacy for greener transportation, while learning at Framework Cycles. Pretty intuitive, right? We thought so, too.
So, we did it!
We opened Embark Education with a group of amazingly talented professionals who had dedicated themselves to their crafts, and who bought into supporting youth learning in non-traditional contexts. We refer to this dynamic team of baristas and bike mechanics as our Enterprise Team. Additionally, we had our Education Team—three seasoned educators whose years of experience total almost 60. We were ready to go.
Then, the other shoe quickly dropped. The speed of business and the speed of education are, to put it simply, different. For example, we’d receive coffee beans from one of our local roasters, grind them down, brew the coffee, and when our students would pour milk into the coffee, voila!—it would instantly curdle.
What a rich learning opportunity, right? All the research opportunities around chemistry are sitting right there, not to mention the experiments that could take place.
Yes, great opportunities, indeed. But, the business side of Pinwheel—you know, making money and not serving curdled coffee—couldn’t wait for these authentic learning moments to run their course. The moment to sit in the confluence of deep learning flew past us.
Living our Learnings
“Time” was up to its same old antics as before, seemingly stealing away the meaningful learning experiences we so desperately wanted to provide our students. How could we create a flow of learning where students and educators could swim into an eddy and wade into the current at a pace that met each learner where they were? And, how could we align that desire with the constant, fast flow of espresso shots hissing and bike wheels spinning—keeping customers happy and well-served?
Harnessing our learnings from our first partnership with Montessori has allowed Embark to evolve into its current iteration, where we are dismantling the conventional school schedule in favor of a more dynamic environment where learners are given more agency, and where time is more thoughtfully utilized.
By design, the days at Embark are rarely alike and don’t follow a conventional schedule that is based on arbitrary blocks of time. Instead, days sync with the ebb and flow of the students’ projects and research and are guided by our education team who leverage the constant and natural learning opportunities within our environments to integrate education in a relevant and meaningful way. Our daily schedule is built around student needs and learning, not periods, and because of this, every week looks different.
While there is no such thing as a “typical day” at Embark, integrated shop projects with our Enterprise Team, the baristas at Pinwheel, and the bike mechanics at Framework, are a prominent piece of the student experience. Literally situated within the walls of two businesses, our students are uniquely positioned to engage in projects that truly integrate academics with real-world questions.
For example, while working on the practical skill of crafting the perfect cappuccino under the guidance of one of our baristas, students investigate the differing mathematical ratios of ingredients present in a latte versus a cappuccino, and the chemistry behind the extraction of caffeine from coffee beans.
These integrated shop projects include a combination of direct instruction within the three core academic disciplines (math, science, and humanities); personalized student exploration; and practical work within the bike and coffee shops. They enable students to master foundational academic skills, while simultaneously experiencing the application of these skills in the world beyond the classroom.
We have honed in on and focused on communication and alignment between our educators and our Enterprise Team. Rather than being an “accessory” to students’ learning, the Enterprise Team has become integral to our work, aiding in the planning and execution of projects with real-world results and implications for both businesses. This newly found synergy between our educators and the Enterprise Team has evolved into all stakeholders within our organization grappling with a new element of identity in a fluid and fascinating way.
The Enterprise Team of baristas and bike mechanics are not “teachers,” nor are our educators trained baristas or bike mechanics. Yet, there needed to be thoughtful areas of overlap and synchronicity. The Enterprise Team and the Education Team were mindful and considerate of each other, carefully dipping their toes in each other’s worlds. The students would do “shop shifts,” with the goal of having them gain an understanding and appreciation of the work of each shop and, at its best, of giving the learners context for some of the learning ahead.
These experiences were beyond anything our learners had encountered, and even still, there were opportunities missed. There was rich learning teeming right beneath the surface, but it was elusive and out of grasp. As we continued reaching for deeper learning experiences, we, like the rest of the world, were thrown a highly unexpected curveball: COVID-19.
As we navigated the choppy waters of a pandemic-induced pivot, we had some serious moments of reckoning. We realized that it wasn’t fully conducive for us to have numerous learners in the shops at any given moment, and we leaned more deeply into our design pillar of embedded. One of our educators, Brian, began to ask questions like, “What if shop shifts and learning experiences become indistinguishable? What if the learning is so intertwined with the needs of the businesses that students will naturally engage in shop shifts?” These questions propelled us further into the confluence of business and learning.
“What if shop shifts and learning experiences become indistinguishable? What if the learning is so intertwined with the needs of the businesses that students will naturally engage in shop shifts?”
An Old Project Recycled, and a Brand New Outcome
With emerging communication systems, plentiful conversations, and radical trust, the Enterprise Team at Pinwheel and our Educator Team blended together seamlessly to empower our 6th grade learners to research, design, prototype, taste, test, and present a new seasonal drink for the menu. This was not a new idea for a project. It was a recycled idea that, in its first iteration, only yielded confusion. So, naturally, we had our doubts.
Yet, Brian and Joe, through thoughtful scaffolding and constant communication, synthesized loosely aligned goals, into a shared vision. They supported the learners in asking important questions, critically thinking about what they were working toward, and ultimately steadily guided them to one of the best-selling seasonal drinks of all time, the Lemon Lavender Latte.
This experience uncovered the powerful potential of what can be when we intentionally, mindfully, and methodically find the sweet spot between the speed of business and the speed of learning.
This intersection of the speed of business and the speed of learning currently lies in the space of meaningful and authentic learning where students and adults are exploring together on a level playing field. There are no predetermined outcomes because together they are truly exploring what is possible for the small businesses, whether that is a decision, a purchase, a design, or something none of us saw coming, like the surprisingly delicious flavor profile of a Lemon Lavender Latte. What makes this intersection unique is that all of us—the Enterprise Team, the educators, the learners, and the community—are in it together.
What Comes Next?
As we chase the flow of meaningful learning, we have only just begun. At Embark Education, Pinwheel Coffee, and Framework Cycles, we have fundamentally shifted our orientation towards youth.
Learners are our equals in this journey, and while adults still have experience and knowledge adolescents have not yet attained, we radically trust each other and them. We subtly shift what is possible in our minds, in each other’s minds, and in each customer’s mind as they enter the shops, uncovering the terribly kept secret that the shops are also a school where really incredible learning happens.
It’s this hope that we can shift what is possible in education at-large that keeps us learning; that keeps us iterating; that keeps us returning to that bright orange and blue decal on the back wall of Pinwheel. It is what keeps us aspiring to radically change the way business, education, and community intersect.