Harvest season is a time for reaping what we’ve sown. What is better than coming back to school to discover that the young teacher in the classroom next door has found her legs and is well-prepared for the new year? Or how about the magic of summer during those tough middle school years? We invest heavily to keep the new teacher afloat and to get through the navel gazing of seventh grade, and we deserve a moment to celebrate the fruits of our labor when shining faces get fresh starts each fall.
Which brings me to gardening. I grew up on a farm, and gardening remains my avocation. I learned how to be a good teacher by tending my plants, and to this day my most inspired education ideas come while digging in the dirt. Both practices come down to these simple truths:
The start you get impacts your entire trajectory: The research is resounding on the value of a strong start in academics - it’s why the board book industry exists! - but this extends to new endeavours across the learning arc. When students come into an online class, the onboarding activities they do are intentionally targeted towards teaching them how to manage themselves in a new learning space. Just as in my garden I cover seedlings so they don’t get burned by the spring sun or fall frost, in our classes we take care to ensure that each student gets the support they need to adjust to online learning. Every student (and every plant) depends on a good start.
Being known matters: One of the first week’s activities in our classes asks each student to meet individually with their teacher to discuss goals for the year and talk about the type of support they’ll need in their online class. Instead of the online course feeling sterile, this practice creates immediate connection between student and teacher. Knowing how to support each student empowers our teachers to be responsive and to personalize the course for their learners. For example, one student this year told her teacher that her goal was “to learn how to read how to do things because at [my school] my teachers spend a lot of time telling me how to do things.” Aware that college will likely be different, she wants to focus on this academic skill deficit. Her One Schoolhouse teacher was able to suggest a regular, standing meeting while she is developing this skill so that she can learn to identify what is confusing and ask for clarification. In my garden, different plants have different soil and water requirements. If I plant my blueberries (which need slightly acidic soil) next to my strawberries (which need more fertilizer and water), the blueberries won’t produce. Every student (and every plant) has different needs, and we need to take time to learn what those needs are so we can respond appropriately.
A healthy environment is crucial for growth: Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, and cultivating a physically and emotionally healthy classroom is the job of every educator. Online, this means structure: structures that make learning pathways easy to access, routines and rubrics that make expectations clear, formative assessments that let teachers and students identify struggles, and opportunities to try new things safely. In my garden, this means investing heavily in healthy soil, managing pests naturally, and ensuring that each plant gets the right amount of water. Every student (and every plant) can only thrive when conditions are just right.
Perfect doesn’t pay: High achieving students - and this applies to almost all One Schoolhouse students - strive for excellence. While we don’t want to undercut the teaching of grit or the encouragement of hard work, it is a slippery slope from persistence to perfection. Here at One Schoolhouse, we are implementing practices that help students make holistic academic choices, such as recognizing when to move on. For example, our late work policy helps students to stay on track, catch up quickly if they fall behind, and occasionally realize that it’s ok to let something go. The process of learning can be messy, but the outcome can still be successful. Like students’ learning trajectories, my garden doesn’t always look tidy but the plants grow deep roots and strong shoots, and I regularly let a vine crawl out of its bed or prune back a sick plant to give it a fresh start. And if you sat at my dinner dinner table, you’d never guess that all the delicious food comes from such a tangle of vines and bushes. No student or plant looks perfect, but perfect isn’t necessary for a satisfying harvest.
It isn’t just about the harvest: We forget that this work is seasonal. The structure of school is predicated on the expectation of outcomes - transcripts, resumes, college acceptances - but as educators, we want to raise lifelong learners. That’s why One Schoolhouse teachers design courses backwards from competencies, which we define as aptitudes that capture what we value. We want students to engage with the world using the practices essential to the discipline they are studying, and we measure mastery by their ability to transfer these competencies beyond the course. In my garden, what I do after the harvest - composting, mulching, pruning - is the most important factor in the longevity of my farm. Every teacher (and every gardener) should always be designing for the next season.
So while you’re out picking pumpkins or planting fall lettuce this month, think about your students. Are they off to a good start? Have you taken time to have a one-on-one conversation with each student? Is there safe space for each student to grow? It isn’t too late to cultivate the soil for a fruitful year!
Last month, I wrote about the intentional onboarding necessary to set students up for success in the online space. We’ve also learned that simple design and technology are key to student success too.
I should note that this philosophy worked against impulses of the technology leaders in 2009 (the year we were founded), and still against many technology leaders today. Technology leaders can be excited about the next new gadget, and work to bring new tools regularly into all classrooms. Our approach was different… in part because of necessity.
As a consortium of schools, we couldn’t make assumptions about the types of devices and platforms that our students would come to our class with. So, we couldn’t require add-ons (software or hardware) in the ways that many schools would. We settled on two pretty simple requirements: high-speed internet access and a computer with a webcam. This meant, by necessity that almost all of the work that students did, had to be in the learning management system.
There was another reason for the simple design, and that was philosophical: we believed that in good learning design, learning should be at the forefront, not technology. We wanted to make sure that our students were not concentrating on learning a new technology, but instead on the learning happening in the class.
This also meant standardizing the look and feel of our courses so that a student would not have difficulty navigating the online learning space. At first, we worried that this may stifle the creativity of our teachers, but instead we found that our teachers appreciated that their creative efforts went into curriculum design instead of the visual design of classes.
We found great applicability of this concept in face-to-face schools as well. When teachers are given choice in course design, students need to learn how to navigate each teacher’s choices… But when design is standardized, the student can concentrate on the learning of the course, not learning how to navigate (or game) a particular teacher.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)