What if Every Learner Was Empowered to Choose Their Own Path?

Learner Voices   11 November 2020
By Erubey Lopez, Lamoille Union High School's EPIC Academy


…My feet hitting the trail led me to an important discovery about learning and growth: You can set your own pace, define your own distance, and determine your own destination.

Erubey Lopez
Learner, Lamoille Union High School's EPIC Academy

Running is one of the most important aspects of my life, and one I’ve continually turned to  during the pandemic. When I lace up my shoes, head out the door, and trace miles and miles of peaceful Vermont roads and trails, I always discover calm and clarity (even in times of grief and hardship). 

There is a meditative cadence to the wind and rhythmic sound of my feet hitting the ground that transports me to a place where I can freely think. I’m incredibly grateful for these moments of escape, and I believe everyone deserves a similar space where they can be alone with themselves and their thoughts.

I’ve come to realize, though, that not everyone experiences being alone as a peaceful time. Other young people my age often have the opposite relationship—where the opportunity to self-reflect is a very negative experience. How can things be so different between me and them? 

One possibility I’ve been exploring is the impact of our individual educational experiences. I attend EPIC Academy—a student-driven, project-based learning program at Lamoille Union High School. EPIC provides learners the opportunity to pursue learning outside the constraints of a structured classroom schedule. Through quarter-long passion projects wrapped around our interests and developed in partnership with advisors, EPIC cultivates the individual growth and curiosity of each learner in the context of a supportive learning community of peers exploring their own interests and development.

During my time at EPIC, I’ve been able to follow interests that feed my imagination and allow me to get to know myself deeply. With support from my advisors, I have built the confidence, leadership, and creativity that comes from an education journey that is designed with the learner at the table.

From Student at a Desk to Partner in Inventing Something New

If I was born five years earlier, none of what I described above would be true. Why? Because EPIC Academy didn’t exist. I’ve been lucky enough to get to see and experience EPIC through its many stages of development—from initial concept on paper to successful implementation.

At the end of my freshman year, I connected with Kim Hoffman and Amber Carbine-March, the Rowland Fellows responsible for bringing EPIC to life. I can still remember that meeting. Pushing through my mental fatigue following the completion of an avalanche of last-minute biology assessments, I eagerly listened as they pitched this new education concept: “Advocacy, communication, and skills are the curriculum,” they explained. 

I was sold, which made it easy to immediately accept what came next—an invitation to sit on the steering committee responsible for guiding the launch of EPIC Academy at Lamoille.  

My experience on the committee was life changing. Up to that point, my peers and I were merely learners in conventional classrooms. But on the committee, we were treated as partners. Witnessing the benefit of strong youth-adult and youth-community partnerships transformed my belief of what’s possible in education. 

EPIC Academy’s purpose is to kindle a love for learning and allow learners to explore themselves and seek opportunities to grow. Like the steady cadence of my foot striking the earth, I could (and can still) feel the momentum of this opportunity propelling me forward. Again, I was lucky because this is not the reality for most young learners. 


How can we let learners drown in packets when there are problems in the world that are actually relevant, like this global pandemic?

Erubey Lopez
Learner, Lamoille Union High School's EPIC Academy

Last spring, when the pandemic forced everyone into online learning, I spoke with a freshman on a peer-to-peer tutoring call who was struggling with the transition. I listened, becoming more and more disturbed as she explained her assignment. Two to three times per week, this student was receiving five-to-ten page long packets of wordy biology questions. 

I attempted to help, but I was struggling with a fundamental question: How could I convince this peer that a packet of disconnected facts and multiple choice questions was worth doing? Better yet, should I? How can we let learners drown in packets when there are problems in the world that are actually relevant, like this global pandemic? 

Biology bears incredible relevance to everything from current events to the beautiful, small, colorful pet bird that was perched on her shoulder during the call. Biology (and life) is so much richer than mindless repetition and memorization.

This is when I realized just how much young people were struggling to find any meaning or excitement in their learning. They were feeling increasingly disengaged and overwhelmed by busywork. These were emotions that were so far removed from the tempo of my everyday life.

Each day, I was tracking my runs and having regular check-ins with peers and advisors from EPIC to share our struggles, successes, and learning accomplishments—all while contributing to statewide efforts to promote and amplify personalized learning and youth-adult partnerships. I regularly collaborated with organizations like Big Picture Learning, Vermont Learning for the Future, and Up for Learning to plan and host virtual summits. 

I’m thankful that during this pandemic and the abrupt transition to virtual learning, I never experienced a lack of relevance in my work. In fact, the “work” felt more relevant than ever before. I was making a difference, which helped me feel more connected to my education.

This is About So Much More than EPIC Academy

The awe I experienced in the spring and summer months from the familiar sound of my feet hitting the trail led me to an important discovery about learning and growth: You can set your own pace, define your own distance, and determine your own destination.

I am grateful to my EPIC advisors and peer group for supporting me on this unfolding journey and giving me the motivation to ask questions that often go unasked. 

As I explore what school could be, I wonder: What if schools didn’t prioritize teaching for a test? What if learning, for all young people, happened alongside adults and peers in their community and was centered outside of the classroom? What if all learners were seen as leaders? What if learning was acknowledged to be exploring relevant passions and interests? What if we set up supports for learners to come to deeply know themselves and their community? Like my runs, what if learning was measured by the fullness of the journey, rather than the race toward a predetermined destination? What if we allow learners and adult mentors/advisors to co-create and implement individual learning plans? 

There is so much possibility. It’s time for us to allow young people to pay more attention to what they enjoy doing when they have the freedom to choose.  

I often think of where I would be if I were on a different path; if I wasn’t able to get lost for hours in the woods and on dirt roads, hair rising and falling onto my shoulders with every step as I allow the challenges of the day to sink away. Where would I be if I had to move through school working strictly for grades?

Little did I know that when Kim and Amber approached me to be part of EPIC’s steering committee, or when this global pandemic hit, that there would be so many opportunities that would change my life. Education is suddenly moving in bursts towards a future that allows students to develop a love for learning, to get up and want to go to school because “school” is not contained by four walls and a compliance-based curriculum. 

It is time for us to not waste this crisis but to use it as an opportunity for doing things differently. It is time to actively dismantle the antiquated systems of education and rebuild schools that are grounded in humanity, community, love, and a strong sense of self.

At EPIC Academy, we live and breathe the motto: Know Myself, Grow Myself, Make My Mark, See it Through. Running trails are where I go to find myself. And, EPIC Academy has given me the structure and freedom to make my mark and see my projects through. All young people deserve this type of learning experience. One where they are empowered to find their own path. One where they, too, can know themselves, grow themselves, and make their mark.

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