An Unprecedented Opportunity

 “Unprecedented”, defined as never done or known before. Synonyms are unrivaled, unmatched, unequaled, unparalleled.  I doubt anyone would disagree that these are unprecedented times.  What educators once knew and enjoyed as normal is no more. Still, Big Picture educators didn’t spend time dwelling. They went to work.  In a matter of a week, and some in cases a few days, I witnessed schools mobilize to develop a plan on how to continue to serve our young people. They:
  • updated/set up their LMS to ensure students had access to content and assignments;
  • developed new structures to manage attendance and student engagement;
  • mobilized to distribute devices and hotspots and ordered more to fill the gap;  
  • set up trainings to help develop their skills for Distance Learning; 
  • developed a new Distance Learning daily schedule;
  • mobilized social workers and counselors to make sure they had a pulse on students’ health and well being; and
  • streamlined communication with parents to ensure they were clear of the plan and prepared for the changes.
If you are in disbelief and wondering if all these proactive measures were executed with full efficiency and accuracy, then you are missing the point.  Although these are unprecedented times, there also exist unprecedented opportunities.  An opportunity to learn, grow and evolve quickly.  As I read in a tweet from a superintendent I follow, “pandemic was not in my superintendent manual”.  Similarly, none of my schools were privy to said manual. They knew they needed to build an infrastructure and they did.
As the dust of the foundation is settling, one opportunity I encourage every educator to engage in is reimagining education.  Across our country, state departments of education have canceled annual standardized tests, end-of-course exams, school grading and seat time.
Educators. This is an unprecedented opportunity.
An opportunity to reimagine what schools and learning could be, to put young people at the center of their learning, and to leverage every student’s passions, strengths, and potential.  Here are just a few ways educators can seize this opportunity:
Passion Projects: We need to honor the day to day reality and truth of our young people and what they are experiencing. The global pandemic is impacting us differently, and our youth is no different.  Why don’t we give them a moment to reflect and give them an opportunity to learn more about what interests them. Here is a Passion Project framework educators can use to help students iterate their passion and interests. (This framework was adopted from the LTI Project Handbook from the San Diego Met School).
Learning Goals: With freedom from high stakes testing, now is the time to think more deeply about teaching and learning. Instead of going a mile wide and inch deep, how can we use this moment in history to dive deeper into learning.  The Learning Goals are Big Picture Learning’s framework aiming to help students develop skills in reasoning, problem-solving and community leadership.  Here is an incomplete list of ideas on how learning about COVID-19 can be driven through the Learning goals:
Topic: COVID-19
  • Social Reasoning (thinking like a historian): What are the global impacts of COVID-19? How is my community viewing COVID-19? What direct/indirect effects is COVID-19 having on my family/community? What is the history of COVID-19 and how has it evolved until today? How have communities responded to COVID-19 and what are they learning? How can I help my community through this?
  • Empirical Reasoning (thinking like a scientist): How does COVID-19 spread? What impact does COVID-19 have on the human body? How is my community/the world approaching COVID-19? What solutions are being implemented and are they effective? What other solutions can I share and how can I test, collect and analyze my results?
  • Quantitative reasoning (thinking like a mathematician): What does “flatten the curve” mean?  What are the patterns of infections, deaths, survivals rates throughout the world and my community? What is social distancing and what impact can it have on the spread of COVID-19? What is the doubling effect? What is supply and demand and how is it affected by COVID-19? What does this mean for jobs in my community or my parents?
  • Communication (taking in and expressing ideas): Who are the leading experts on COVID-19 and what are they saying? What is the most important information I should know and share with my community? Who in my community can I talk to and how can I learn from them? How can I express what I am learning? What can I produce as a product of my learning and how can I share it?
  • Personal Qualities (being my best self): How am I taking care of myself during this pandemic? What am I doing every day to be my best self?  How can I help my family/community during this time? How can I organize this project so it is manageable and not overwhelming?
Please also see this evolving project titled “High School in the time of Corona Virus” created by BPL School Design Coach Andrea Purcell.
Alternative Assessments: Every day and in every way our students are learning.  Truth is that most of their learning does not fit neatly into our classroom checkboxes. Their learning is as unique as they are.  So when we think about measuring what students know, how can we do so while honoring their uniqueness? This is why Alternative Assessments have been a hallmark of BPL’s design.  Here are some ideas for Alternative Assessments during Distance Learning:
  • Exhibitions: At the end of every quarter, students present/teach what they have learned to a group of panelists consisting of their peers, parents/family members, teachers, mentors, school staff and the community at large.  When we think of high stakes, what’s higher than teaching what you know to people you care about and value. This level of accountability is intrinsic and personal. And this can all be done virtually.
    • Odyssey’s Exhibition (13:33-28:28):  Please see Odyssey’s Exhibition. Yes, this Exhibition was done in a school, but please draw the parallel of students presenting what they have learned to people they care about.  This experience and collaborative exchange can be done virtually.
    • Student Website to Introduce Exhibitions: As a Senior Project, one student from the Met High School created a website for students on how to prepare for exhibitions.  As a best practice, our advisors have watched the exhibitions on this website with their students and worked to norm understanding and expectations.
  • Digital Project Products:  Disclaimer, this website is not connected to BPL, but offers 10 Ideas for Digital Projects/Products that I feel are quite appropriate for our Distance Learning environment.  Granted, Advisors and students will need to develop their capacity for these tech tools, but what an incredible experience would it be for advisors to learn side by side with their students.
  • Twitter #AlternativeAssessments: Professional Learning Networks (PLN) exist in person and virtually. Twitter has been my go-to whenever I am stuck and in need of some help.  Please go on to Twitter and enter the Hashtag #alternativeassessments and explore what your colleagues have iterated or developed from around the world.  There are some pretty incredible examples.
These are unprecedented times and for so many of us, we have not even reached the climax of disruption.  As the weeks unfold and we pray for all those essential workers providing critical support to so many of us and those affected by COVID-19, I can’t help but to also think about our young people.  They need us more than ever. Elliot Washor, a mentor to many of us, puts it eloquently, “high tech will never replace high touch.” As we embark on this distance learning journey, may we never lose sight of the power of relationships and human connection. May we leverage them with students’ passions, strengths, and potential. This is our unprecedented opportunity to do so.