We are only halfway through 2020, yet the past few months have reinforced the need for a fundamental shift in how we educate. We’ve experienced a global pandemic and civil rights movement like no other, both illuminating the consequences of flawed systems and structures in desperate need of reform, including education. Once classes resume in the fall, the temptation to carry on with ed as usual will be stronger than ever. We are creatures of habit, after all. But unpredictable times demand we are more agile in our approach to teaching and learning. It is clear — we have work to do.
Change happens most when fueled by a strong community with a growth-mindset. Redefining the narrative of schooling, High Marq is a learner-centered school that facilitates project-based learning, guided inquiry, workshop mini-lessons, and place-based field experiences in Montello, Wisconsin. In speaking with Headrush, Advisor and Co-Lead Teacher Skylar Primm tells us a bit more about High Marq and his journey navigating remote learning amid uncertain times.
In light of school closures, Skylar discusses High Marq’s transition to remote learning as being fairly smooth given the systems they had set in place prior. “In having Headrush in place, we were really confident that we weren’t going to have as much trouble as traditional schools because our student project work was already being tracked online. If I’m not hearing from a student and I’m seeing their evidence being uploaded in the Headrush app, I can at least look at that. Conversely, if I’m not hearing from students and they’re not submitting evidence, then I ask, ‘okay what’s going on here.’ That’s why I think it’s been useful for remote learning as a communication tool.”
High Marq prioritizes their values as a student-centric school, making it a point to incorporate student input, learning outdoors and real-world project building into their virtual classrooms.
Here are four strategies High Marq shares to better engage remote learners:
1. Culture building with mentor students
At the start of the year, High Marq spends quality time culture building by empowering veteran students to pave the way for new students. Skylar says, “Our veterans are the ones that really carry the culture forward and are the torch bearers of the school. We have a mentor program where new students always have an older student as their mentor to go to for advice, support, or help.” High Marq matches mentor-mentee personalities together based on who they feel would support one another and encourages new students to schedule weekly check-ins with mentors. The mentor program helps High Marq deschool their students who arrive from traditional programs; instead of always viewing the “teacher as expert,” mentees learn the value of asking their older, experienced peers for guidance. “It’s really hard for new students to come into a nontraditional school like this from a traditional program. They want to ask the teacher all the questions — it’s hard to say no because, of course, because you just want to help kids. But having a mentor there helps students build another kind of community and facilitate a relationship that’s really special,” states Skylar. During remote learning, a mentor program can be equally as helpful in keeping students connected, having accountability partners for project check-ins, and boost morale for social and emotional support.
2. Individual check-ins with students
Remote learning has come with its challenges for all, and one of the recurring problems many schools face is keeping in consistent communication with their students. The flexible nature of online schooling gives students many opportunities to “drop off,” and teachers are left scrambling in attempts to track them down. “I think an area of success for me has been figuring out what application is going to work for each student and just being flexible. We are having weekly check-ins and give students many different options, such as video, or audio, or Hangout chat — whatever they are comfortable with. Some I’ve just been in touch with by email, because it is about enabling them. I know my students well enough already that I can trust that if this is what they need and they are willing to tell me what they need, then we can go with it,” shares Skylar. By adapting to each and every student’s needs and comfort level, Skylar has been able to stay in regular contact with all of his students. Individual check-ins are critical as they allow for both personal and academic temperature checks during these uncertain times.
3. Synchronous but optional advisories and town halls
Community building is important, especially during times of social distancing. High Marq shows that distancing doesn’t have to be all that distant by offering synchronous but optional advisory meetings and town halls. Skylar remarks on how they decided to make these activities optional in order to be equitable, as they knew not all students would be able to attend. Forcing attendance would force compliance, then raise unfair expectations during a time when many parents are working from home and have their own set of challenges, circumstances and demands to work around. “Knowing our community and knowing their situations, we understood it was just not going to be fair to them, so we’re holding advisory circles, and at the end of each week, Town Halls, which is when we bring all the students together. The tendency is I get between half and two-thirds at my advisory, which is decent.” While Skylar would love to see everybody in attendance, he understands this works better for students who may feel anxious in front of the camera. He’s even recorded the meetings on Google Classroom for students who would like to “chat” in. Skylar calls this a “social experience” of sorts, but acknowledges that as long as students are comfortable and keeping in communication, it is important they too get an understanding and feel for how active they want to be as virtual participants. “Our teachers have really gone out of their way to check-in on students. They continually get communication from their teachers that care about them and having access to them regularly has made all the difference,” says Skylar.
4. Relevant, real-world projects
One benefit of being a learner-centered school is that High Marq’s project work seamlessly carries from in class to remote settings through their use of Headrush. Skylar draws inspiration from the times for math enrichment and focuses on data literacy by using the tool, “What’s Going On in This Graph?” from The New York Times Learning Network. Skylar says, “This is a cool resource where they post a graph every week. They invite students to ask things like — What do you notice? What do you wonder? — and students can discuss them live. I got into some of the Covid-19 graphs like that with a light touch, like the transmission rate, and then can give them a little bit of practice reading graphs that are in the news right now.” High Marq Field Naturalist, Tiffany Lodholz, also assigns relevant, real-world projects during this time. “Tiffany has done a really awesome job of developing all these wonderful plans we had for the spring to be outside and creates virtual lessons where she’s really encouraging students to be outside,” states Skylar. Tiffany has designed a range of virtual field lessons, such as Environmental Impact of the Covid-19 Crisis, Wisconsin’s Endangered Species, 50th Anniversary of Earth Day (lesson linked) and many more. Each one has a mini lesson about the topic and then a hands-on or outdoor extension activity. Tiffany states, “I try to make sure I have options available that will engage the various interests of our students as well as be flexible enough to adapt to what resources they have available to them in quarantine. If they choose an inside activity, I ask them to do an additional outdoor activity of their choice during the week if it is safe for them to do so.” By connecting learning activities with reflections, High Marq has been successful in getting students outdoors during school closures.
During these times, it is increasingly important we share best practices and cultivate digital learning communities. Conscientious of their students, High Marq goes out of their way to ensure their community is considered in their decision-making. “We actually sent a survey out at the very beginning of school closures asking how much access our students had to outdoor space just to make sure we were being fair and equitable in what we were asking them to do. It was really beneficial for us to work around that information,” says Skylar. We can learn many lessons from High Marq as they focus on student voice and choice, and continue to build their learning community together.