Pausing to Reflect on Why

 Monday, March 16 was my first day with Big Picture Learning. I was hired to support schools and districts across New York to implement and advocate for internships as a pathway to high school graduation. I was eager to get out to visit our partner schools and start the work having read up on the preceding pilot project, studied the existing requirements, and begun to catch up on the status of schools’ work and state-level conversations. But…
 
Monday, March 16 was also the first day New York State went on “Pause,” bringing life to a grinding halt for millions of students and thousands of teachers. Effectively overnight, schools had to establish new routines, schedules, modes of communication, and methods of teaching.
 
Understandably, internships dropped rapidly on schools’ list of priorities for the immediate future. Moreover, many internship mentors and employer partners are now navigating their own crises, as small business owners are forced to lay people off, temporarily shutter doors, or rethink their business plans. On top of that, district and state guidance has made it challenging for schools to know how to proceed, leaving them wondering: Can we safely facilitate virtual internships? Should we graduate or hold back seniors with minimal outstanding requirements? Should we introduce new projects and totally redesign our curricula? Or should we chug through the next few weeks in hopes that things will return to normal soon? (News flash: They won’t).
 
At Big Picture too, our priorities have shifted and we’ve had to rethink how we support our schools and what services we should be offering. We’ve put together a new website with resources, launched a series of webinars for schools and advisors, begun hosting weekly regional Zooms, and even explored virtual classroom inter-visitations.
 
 
We’ve been grappling with questions like: How can our schools help students leave to learn when they can’t leave their houses? How can advisors create meaningful community and connection virtually? How can we remotely coach and support schools through shifting priorities? How can we support each other as we navigate new dynamics at work and at home?
 
Jumping into a new job and role at a time of such turmoil has meant throwing expectations and plans out the window. Now is the time to focus less on “what” or “how” and more on “why.” There are so many questions that will take time to answer about what is expected of schools, students and families; what will happen to the economy; how we will navigate through these challenges; and how we will change as a result of this disruption. What we need to do now is get back to the basics and ground ourselves in the “Why’s”.
 
Why do we send kids to school? Why do we wake up and go to work each day? I’ve been muddling through these questions in partnership with my new team at Big Picture and thinking about how our why can inform: where do we go from here?
 
Why do we send kids to school?
Historically, we have sent kids to school to prepare them for an industrialized workforce that needs many workers who can follow rules and some workers who can make them. We have relied on schools to teach students reading, writing, and arithmetic, to socialize them, and to keep them safe while their families are at work.
 
But that’s not enough. We need schools to activate students’ passions, develop their strategic decision-making skills, build empathy and community, and ultimately prepare students to lead happy, independent, choice-filled lives. Today’s students will need to be able to navigate uncharted territory and make quick but informed decisions, build relationships with and learn from individuals across the globe, leverage technology in new and unexpected ways, and be community-minded. Big Picture schools have been operating with these assumptions for more than two decades by building truly personalized, real-world authentic learning experiences for students. Big Picture students start by understanding their own why as they reflect on their strengths and interests, and then seek out opportunities in their community that tap into those interests and build on their skills. As students Learn Through Interests and Internships (LTIs), they engage in complex problem-solving and build robust personal and professional networks that will serve them beyond high school. As a result, some of Big Picture’s students and alums are better equipped than we are to solve for the unprecedented challenges we currently face. Last week, a recent Big Picture alum schooled Big Picture staff and school leaders on how we can continue to meet these expectations despite social distancing barriers. If you haven’t already asked your students and alums this same question, what are you waiting for?
 
Why do we wake up and (go to) work each day?
Historically, we have worked to pay the bills and keep the economy running. But today, similarly we need work that activates our passions, challenges our minds, builds community, and enables us to realize a more equitable and sustainable world. And in times of extended work-from-home quarantine, we need work that prevents us from going stir-crazy!
 
After a thoughtful and intentional process of self-reflection, discovery, and network-building, I ultimately accepted an offer to work with Big Picture for many of these reasons. And though the shape of my work in the near future will likely look different than I had expected, the last few weeks have affirmed that decision for me. Big Picture has been incredibly thoughtful in helping staff and schools navigate this challenging time -- creating new opportunities for collaboration and connection that address the organization’s core competencies while also reinforcing a sense of community for an (already) remote team. We have launched creativity challenges to pitch new ideas responding to what we are learning from schools. And of course we created a Slack channel to share pictures of our furry coworkers to keep us smiling (see above).
 
Jumping into an organization when so much is in flux certainly presents some challenges, but also offers a unique opportunity to focus on the why and to really understand the basics. I’ve read Leaving to Learn, virtually connected with colleagues across the country, peeked in on their work, and observed how quickly and agilely they have pivoted in response to the challenges of COVID-19 while remaining laser-focused on student interests, relationships, and relevance.
 
Where do we go from here?
While the world is on “pause”, we have a unique opportunity to step back and ask ourselves these big questions. When we move forward, we must not revert to old habits and entrenched structures. After all, life is too short to not foster our and our students’ passions.
 
As states have paused high-stakes tests and waived seat time and graduation requirements, we have a unique opportunity to reconsider how we track and measure what matters in schools. Some states have given districts and schools the autonomy to set their own requirements for this year, which presents a fascinating experiment. Beyond test scores, how will we define “readiness” for college, career, and life? And how will we recognize and value not only students’ academic prowess, but also their passions, capacity for empathy and problem-solving, and real-world experiences?
 
Similarly, as employers realize what is possible with technology and flexible schedules, let’s bring these learnings into the workplace, informing new policies and modes of collaboration that honor individuals’ unique needs and circumstances.
 
When we press “play”, I hope we hold ourselves accountable to these answers and that we are open to a new path forward for our schools and workplaces.