School year 20–21: Focusing on the possible

We’ve launched our 2020–21 school year, and we feel ready. We feel ready, not because we have everything figured out, but instead we feel ready because we know that we don’t have everything figured out. We know that this year will be unlike any school year that we’ve ever experienced and this has a powerful impact on our mindset. We are going to focus on student and staff needs and in doing so we are going to be flexible and adaptive. In the end some things are going to work better than we expect and some things will work worse than we hope. In that regard this year won’t be too much different than any other year for us.

Over the course of the year, I’ll be sharing some of things that we are trying and how they seem to be working. Hopefully this will help others make decisions for their school sites. Here are a couple of things we’ve tried:

Mindset for the year: Focus on the possible. We know that in moving to distance learning we’ve lost a significant part of the high school experience and it’s ok to be sad about that. We also know that to be resilient we can’t live in this mindset. Any time we start thinking about what we can’t do, we try to quickly shift to something we can do. We’ve always told our students that they can grow to meet any challenge and this year presents their best opportunity for growth.

Staff Support: We took our office supply budget for the year and divided it equally among our staff. Each staff member will get $300 to spend anyway they choose to help them transform their homes into classrooms. We also purchased standing desks for staff members and have developed a system for staff members to check out supplies, such as whiteboards and office chairs, from the school for use at home,

Student Course load: Students typically enroll in six courses, which is too many to manage at one time in distance learning. To decrease the cognitive load needed to juggle zoom links and bandwidth we developed a schedule in which students cycle through their courses three at time. This allows both for more in-depth work on the part of the student and cuts the student load in half for the teacher. With a smaller student load, teachers can provide better feedback and focus on student connection; two essential elements in a distance learning environment.

(A quick note about student bandwidth: many of our students have Internet at home, but after our first week we all noticed that they are not set up to support multiple simultaneous video conferences, which happens when entire families are both working from home and participating in school through Zoom. While we want cameras on all the time to improve student and teacher connection, this may not work).

Technology Purchases: We’ve made many, but our general mindset is that we are trying to transform our school into a production studio. Staff members need the capability to produce high quality videos, and we need the capability to live stream so that we can keep our families connected.

Student Curriculum: Last year I wrote about our quest for a Purposeful Design Thinking curriculum, and the timing of this has been excellent for students. Our students, particularly our seniors, came into the school year ready to make a difference in the world. They want to create things to address the challenges we face as a country. They are concerned about global health, the environment, and racial justice, and our design thinking curriculum has been developed to support innovation in these areas. It was very inspiring to see our seniors in the first week of school so enthusiastic in making a difference. We should do everything we can to support our students as they work to make the world a better place.

These are just a few of things we’re trying, and I’ll let you know how they go. We’ve always tried to be a school that is “built to adapt” and I want to leave you with a story I shared with our parents:

As we launched this year, one of our staff members shared with me an article by Prakash Iyer about the bridge on the river Choluteca. This bridge is located in an area of Honduras known for severe weather, so the bridge was designed to withstand the most severe storms. The bridge was open to the public in 1998 and in October of that year Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras. They received 75 inches of rain in four days and all of the bridges in Honduras were destroyed except for the Choluteca bridge. The problem was that the storm wiped out the roads and changed the path of the river, so now it is literally a bridge to nowhere over nothing.

The lesson we take from this is that “built to last” may not be the way to go when you know that storms are coming. Instead maybe a better idea is “built to adapt”, which is not only how we’ve built d.tech but also the mindset we are trying to create in our students. So, I hope you all had a good first week as a family and we appreciate your support as we continue to adapt to whatever the school year brings us.

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