Introducing the U School’s ideas, Competencies, and Chaos

The U School was founded with a mission to break down the “top down” approach of education, and instead center students, granting them autonomy and agency that is not what one would find at a “traditional high school.” This of course presents challenges for staff and students! The educators that come to the U School typically know what they’re getting themselves into, though, while students have frequently expressed feelings of being “duped” by the older students who came and spoke to them about what they liked about the school. 

Some students have said they were told that they could “do whatever they wanted” and that they “wouldn’t need to do any work” and that’s why they chose the U School! Even after they felt this way, many have found ways to carve out a sense of belonging at the school. This is where our sustainability journey starts, we realized: students and staff need to feel safe and welcome in their community. We fumbled a little bit when we tried to come in with our own ideas of beautifying the school, cleaning up the litter, planting gardens, and focusing on the aesthetics of the place, and students called us out on that. 

They noted that, yes, it is important for the building to be warm and welcoming, but they asked us to not lose sight of the people and how they treat each other, too. Maybe students aren’t taking care of the physical space because they don’t feel emotionally safe and so they didn’t want to invest the energy in caring for the physical space. It was certainly a two–way street; the students even recognized this, but they said the most important thing to them was the feeling of being able to be themselves with their classmates and peers. This meant asking administrators and teachers to work on systems of accountability; creating space in the classroom and in advisory for talking about words that cause harm and learning about restorative practices and circles for working through conflict and mediation.

Another thing that the educators noticed was a challenge was the way that work was assigned and graded at the school. Coming back from a virtual year, students were accustomed to Google Classroom and everything being digital, but they craved the physical printouts, too. How could we balance these things? What were we to do with the sheer quantity of content that was being delivered to students via Google Classroom, in addition to the rudimentary grading system offered, and the less-than-friendly “stream” and classwork tab? Some teachers used rubrics, but there was no standard procedure, so new teachers were left to fend for themselves, while students struggled to keep their head above the deluge of notifications, emails, and Google Classroom assignments. Students admitted that they didn’t even read the weekly emails that our principal sent out, and most staff fell behind on their unit planning, or were constantly adapting their classes in real-time, so they didn’t have the time to update their unit plans to reflect what was actually happening in practice! How could anyone consider this sustainable?

We explored different options for communicating with students, and one place where we are doing a “digital overhaul” is with the learning platform that we use, so next year we will be abandoning Google Classroom to pursue a program called Lift. Lift is a smaller company that will work with us to help create a tool for teachers and students to use to monitor their progress. We can create projects that allow students to work in any order, select from a series of tasks, request feedback, and monitor their progress toward certain goals and unit completion. We know there is no “one size fits all” solution that will just address every issue we’ve encountered, but the educators at our school agree that the information and notification overload that comes from Google Classroom can be reduced by using a different system. This is going to be something that we begin implementing next year, so we will report back on the pros and cons of switching to a new system!

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