I feel like we opened a door that we never want to close. The interconnectedness, the relationship [with students] has changed, forever.
Asst. Superintendent, Worcester (MA) Public Schools
Last March, almost overnight, millions of students and educators in the U.S. transitioned to virtual learning—depriving young people of the opportunity to connect in person with caring educators and supportive peers. The daily formal and informal interactions that form strong relationships (when centered alongside personalized learning) expand their thinking, build their confidence, and enrich young people’s understanding of their unique gifts and the contributions they can make to their community.
Throughout the pandemic, a fundamental question arose: How can we possibly recreate those experiences from a distance? With nine months now under our belts, I wanted to investigate what valuable lessons learner-centered leaders could share that might light the way toward powerfully transforming our learning communities as we begin imagining a post-COVID-19 world. I reached out to several friends from learner-centered communities with three questions:
- How have you continued to support your young people’s well-being and growth from afar?
- Has this experience deepened your commitment to learner-centered education?
- What lessons will you carry into the future?
From these conversations, two key takeaways emerged. First, we need to fully recognize and take into account the environments in which our youth are growing up. Second, we must acknowledge that learners can be agents in addressing the needs and improving the well-being of our communities, even during virtual learning.
Honoring the Relationships and Context that Shape Learners’ Experiences
Last spring, successful learner-centered communities focused on developing ways to deepen their relationships with learners and supporting them in adapting to this new physically distanced environment.
Many educators expressed that technology provided an additional window into the lives of their students, allowing them to more clearly see and appreciate the role parents, siblings, and other family members played in maintaining a strong network of support around learners. And, how race, circumstance, and culture shaped the lens through which their learners viewed their learning and the world around them. There was, overall, an overwhelming sense of connectedness.
Educators agreed that we need to honor and enlist these networks of support that are foundational to the ecosystems within which young people learn, grow, and develop. At the end of the day, each one of us is the sum of the people who love and care for us in authentic and genuine ways.
Once we begin to see children and youth as seedlings nurtured by their relationships and environment outside of school, it becomes our responsibility to show up in ways that further enrich their lives and enable them to reach their full potential while in more formal education settings.
It’s not the whole child. It’s the whole family ecosystem. And that’s where I think the shift is in my language.
Co-Director, Charlotte Lab School
In this way, educators are like gardeners who—by providing the right amount of light, water, and healthy soil—help maintain the conditions that empower youth to bring their full selves to every learning opportunity.
Through this lens, we are more likely to ask essential questions, such as: Who is this child? Based on their needs and aspirations, what amounts of “light” and “water” will enable them to thrive? In what soil are they growing? What role can I play in nourishing that soil? And, how can I thoughtfully engage others to nourish that soil with me?
As young people blossom and change, these relationships can be there to lift them up when they struggle or fail, to guide them as they explore their interests and passions, and to celebrate them as wondrous, curious, and vastly capable people.
Empowering Learners to Be Community Catalysts
In 2020, learning-centered communities harnessed the leadership and partnership of their learners to help families and communities. Many learners decided they would dive in, innovate, and spark change, rather than waiting for change to happen or for the disruption to subside.
Over the summer, for example, learners at One Stone recognized the need for younger kids to have opportunities to safely play with their peers, despite the increased constraints on in-person gatherings. In response, they decided to plan, organize, and launch a series of themed summer camps for youth in and around Boise (themes included: STEM, tinkering, creativity, literacy, and entrepreneurship).
The three-day summer camps, which quickly doubled in size with each passing week, were incredibly popular with families. They were grateful to have spaces where their children could engage with their peers, explore the outdoors, learn, and have some much needed fun—while maintaining good health.
Inspired by this work, One Stone students reached out to several other community-based organizations, such as the local Boys and Girls Club, which had opened its doors during the pandemic to youth needing a place to connect and engage in online learning. The One Stone students worked side-by-side with these youth to support their learning and even offered additional activities that would enhance their experience.
Prior to COVID-19, community service was a priority for many learner-centered communities. But given this new environment, it became a greater focal point. This reality revealed to young people that they have the innate power to be innovators and trailblazers right now in this moment (and any moment in the future). We must maintain this momentum and identify opportunities, post-pandemic, for youth to be catalysts in their communities and beyond.
Creating a Better Future, Together
COVID-19 has forced many of us to reorient ourselves to what matters most by looking beyond the structures, systems, and practices that defined our pre-pandemic world. Being there for our learners despite the barriers presented by this pandemic became priority number one.
In most cases, as we transitioned online, schools across the country became preoccupied with how they could replicate the conventional system and meet state expectations. It wasn’t until we shifted our mindset to see this time as an opportunity to experiment, discover, and deepen personal connections that we could imagine how to creatively support the well-being, learning, and leadership of our youth, virtually.
Several educators shared with me that, in many ways, they feel closer to their learners and more rooted in their lives than ever. I’ve heard stories of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and grandfathers and grandmothers getting online and playing a more active role in the learning of their siblings and (grand)children.
What we have gained from all of this is that we can remain committed, even in a virtual environment, to caring for the well-being of our youth. We also must respect and honor their unique lived experiences, which will in turn better equip us to support their growth. And, we must see the value in providing opportunities for our youth to continually grow their skills, perspectives, and capacity to empathize and act.
What greater good could come from this time than to have deeper, richer relationships with our learners, new partnerships with their networks of support, and an increase in their agency and confidence as difference-makers?
This article would not have been possible without the powerful insights and reflections from Marie Morse, Matt Morse, and Sarah Kyriazis of the Worcester (MA) public schools; Alison Parker, Celeste Bolin, Megan Kittridge, & Chad Carlson of One Stone (Boise ID); Paula Dillon of the Barrington (RI) Public Schools; Ricky Singh of the Charlotte (NC) Lab School; Casey O’Meara of the Slate Valley Schools (Southern Vermont); Bobby Dixon of the Chatham School of Science and Engineering (Siler City, NC); and Ben Owens of Open Way Learning.