My first time teaching back in person after the lockdown was in a first-year writing classroom at a community college in August 2021. I asked for a show of hands to see if it was the same for my students, and all twelve raised their hands. Halfway through the three-hour class I realized these students didn’t know how to be in the classroom. They acted as if they were home on Zoom, camera off. Their computers were open even though we didn’t need them at the time. They were visibly chatting and playing games on their phones, not hiding them and texting as before. One student was even on headphones watching Netflix. This was their new normal. It unsettled me.
On top of that, the majority were very far behind grade level. I went home that day rethinking my process, syllabus, and entire teaching philosophy. Instead of demanding respect, I needed to enter the room at the same level as my students because I, too, was relearning. We just went through this extraordinary time together, and now we were moving forward together. Then it dawned on me, what an incredible chance to start over and change how we teach entirely.
The next day, I started by asking the students to tell me about their experiences with school over the last few years and ending with: “What do you need?” They spent more than an hour talking about high school during the pandemic. They described sitting in dark bedrooms all day, opting out of work that didn’t engage them, and missing out on rites of passage, such as field trips, overnight class excursions, prom, and even expressing themselves in a classroom. They talked about worksheets, poor online design, and having no say in how they were supposed to learn during that time. They understood that their teachers were trying to figure it out. They didn’t blame them. They just felt like something had been taken from them. So, many gave up, and it was a miracle they were even there in my classroom that day.
Along with college teaching, I started teaching online long before the pandemic. In September 2019, I found a home at an online high school, where I eventually became Head of Faculty and worked with a team to design and rebuild an online curriculum and platform. For the first two years of the pandemic, I was in my virtual bubble of motivated students who chose online and knew it was for them. They traveled, competed in high level athletics, were in youth symphonies, and took college art classes. These kids made it seem easy; many were privileged to have at-home support and our small school team coaching them along the way.
Working on a New Design
This past year, I joined a team of educators and visionaries at Khan World School to build a new online school. This time, we were being more intentional than ever, following a student-centered, mastery-based model in a slowly built charter. The long-term, overall goal? To offer a world-class, online education to anyone in the world.
We attended the next generation workforce conference where teachers were learning to work as a team in new ways. We kept a few goals in mind: to design a program that not only put students at the center, but also lessened — and hopefully stopped — teacher burnout. My small team mapped out everything. The students would have agency. The teachers would have a say.
Now, our teachers are designing their own curriculum, and the administration is saying, “Yes! Let’s try that!” That includes biology students designing their own labs. In the new program model, teachers are supporting each other, sharing materials, teaching each other innovative ways to make online curriculum interactive, efficient, engaging, and creative. There’s a focus on work-life balance, ensuring teachers can power down, make time for family, and follow creative passions. We are trusting our students to complete work at their own pace. That means someone might finish Algebra I in months instead of taking a full year. We are filling gaps but not holding anyone back.
We allow students to choose what to read from a lengthy, diverse, curated book list. They are also encouraged to follow their passions; if they want to pursue something specific, we will make it work. One student wants to write a novel so we’re adjusting the course. She will learn the same standards as the students working on multiple smaller assignments. The tasks of the novel will be broken down, put into the same process, and count for a major part of her grade. She will do research for her novel and practice persuasive writing to move it forward. Our students are capable of more than we can even imagine. Why not let them drive the train with us there as guides, keeping them on track?
I believe education was getting to this place of redesign, but the pandemic pushed us forward at warp speed. Maybe that’s a silver lining. We have a new appreciation for true, thoughtful online learning that is carefully crafted for the student and teacher alike. We are remaking education in a way that promotes longevity for teachers and gives students power in their learning.
We Are Listening
Our kids have been through more than most of us by their young age. They juggle big scenarios and thoughts. On top of that, they feel the weight of the world with concerns like global warming, gun violence, and mental health. They hear, “You’re the future” and “We’re counting on you to change it all, make it better.” If this is so, then why can’t we trust them more with their own education?
There is nothing more thrilling to me than when one of my students not only finds their voice but realizes they have so many important things to say. Recently, a student asked if she could write her research paper about the effects of COVID on learning. She was struggling to get started and worried that there wasn’t enough research out there yet. I told her to include her story. She said, “But it’s a research paper and I’m not an expert.” I told her, “You are the expert. If you aren’t, then who is?” What I did was give her permission, and boy, did the words flow! She wrote about anxiety, being behind, social media, how she and her classmates wanted more agency. They wanted us to listen, and most of all, trust them.
To my students: We are listening. To my fellow teachers and administrators: We’re listening. I want everyone to know people are out there working hard on redesigning school. I believe in all of us. Together, we will change and make it better for everyone. It’s already underway.