Published: Dec. 1, 2021 By , ,

Amid a pandemic and beyond, educators reimagine the future of K–12 schools

There has been no such thing as a “normal” year of teaching for up-and-coming educator Diana Bustamante-Aguilar, and she sees that as a good thing.

As a student teacher, she joined the masses of educators who protested before state legislatures seeking respect and fair wages. By spring 2020, the 2019 CU Boulder teacher licensure graduate was just hitting her stride in her first official teaching position at Denver’s South High School when her classes were upended by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that abruptly sent educators and students home for online learning through the end of the school year.

“It was a very difficult way to end my first year of teaching,” she said. “But what was interesting is that year we were wrapping up online and everything happened with George Floyd. To end the school year like that was hard, and it was hard to not be in a space to have conversations around racial injustices and police violence and all these things that have happened for a long time.

“I think it was a moment for every teacher to examine who we are going to be as a teacher the following year and what our classroom was going to look like.”

Bustamante-Aguilar has long dreamed of revolutionizing her social studies classes, and now her students and the immensity of the world’s injustices were demanding change.

The following year, Bustamante-Aguilar and colleagues decided to teach history thematically instead of chronologically to focus on the historical context and current issues that matter to students. They looked at the ways COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting communities of color and Indigenous populations while they discussed land ownership and land sovereignty.

Making room for revolutionary love

Bustamante-Aguilar also incorporated art projects that centered students’ family and cultural histories. She shared personal stories about her family’s move from Mexico to Colorado Springs and her experience at an under-resourced high school that was affirming for her but not supportive of her friends and peers. By bringing her true self and vulnerabilities to the classroom, her students, in turn, created meaningful art, poetry, songwriting and more. Her curriculum breaks the rigid assessment mold and allows for flexibility and authenticity.

“At the end of the day, students are going to show me what they know, and they’re going to do so in a way that feels more authentic to them,” she said. “That authenticity is love. It’s being able to love oneself and what one brings to a space.

“I have learned the importance of revolutionary love.”

Relevant learning

Bustamante-Aguilar is not alone. School of Education Dean Kathy Schultz sees a lesson in coming together as a community and the shared humanity of particularly difficult times amid a global pandemic, recharged racial justice movements and more.

In schools, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and further exposed opportunity gaps and inequities in the educational system throughout the United States. But Schultz and educators see this as an opportunity to reimagine how we teach and learn.

“Too often, we assume that we know what’s relevant to students without asking and tapping into what they really care about,” Schultz said. “We need to give them a chance to explore their interests and passions.”

School of Education researchers are working to build on those kinds of opportunities—many are focusing on designing curricula and digital tools that are more relevant to the lives of young people.

José Ramón Lizárraga is an assistant professor of education who studies strategies for digital collaboration and learning for young learners. They said that while online education can present challenges, many of the complaints about online education brought on by the pandemic’s abrupt switch to online instruction miss the point. Plenty of children, and especially students of color, have long been frustrated with their schools.

“We keep hearing, ‘Kids are getting Zoom fatigue. They don’t want to be staring at a screen all day,’” Lizárraga said.

But those sentiments miss the point and the potential of digital spaces, they explained. Young people often don’t see their lives or the issues they care about reflected in their lessons—within online or in-person learning settings—and that needs to change.

“Kids have no problem playing Among Us for six hours,” Lizárraga said, referencing the popular online game. “They can stare at a screen all day if they’re doing something they consider meaningful. We as educators have to take heed of this call to change the way we teach rather than use technologies to replicate the ways we used to do things.”

Arturo Cortez, an assistant professor of education who has collaborated with Lizárraga in an effort called Critical Digital Pedagogies, agreed. He believes that online tools can, and maybe should, transform the classrooms of the future. He asks, for example, how schooling might change if educators intentionally design curricula to foster deeper collaboration and center learning on young people’s lives and cultural practices.

“When we moved students into the digital realm, we realized a lot of the educational practices we’ve done for years in schools don’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “Not just in the online space but for learning overall.”

Why is the sky blue?

Erin Furtak has thought a lot about those kinds of challenges during the pandemic and beyond.

Furtak, professor of education, is the mother of a 7-year-old and 10-year-old who spent large amounts of time at home during the past year-and-a-half. During those long days, they peppered Furtak with questions, such as why can you only sometimes see the moon during the day, instead of at night? Why can some snowballs hurt more than others?

“When the pandemic happened, schools were asking, ‘How are we going to get these curriculum materials that aren’t online to kids at home?’” she said. “But science is everywhere. It’s all around us. Go outside and look at what kinds of plants are growing in different places. Watch the birds and see how they interact with each other and what they eat.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the line between home and school in unprecedented ways: Parents have navigated helping their children learn online, while teachers have gotten a closer look than ever before, sometimes literally, into the home lives of their students. They’ve seen, for example, how some children have balanced looking after their younger siblings while keeping up with their own homework.

Furtak is in no hurry to reinstate those lines as children return to in-person schooling. Science education, she said, works best when students have the chance to act like scientists and ask and answer their own questions about the natural world, rather than just memorizing facts in textbooks.

“Isn’t the pandemic a chance to make schools more like home, rather than making homes more like school?” Furtak said. “How can we center the experiences of kids and their communities in classrooms instead of pushing this one way of doing things?”

Next generation ‘normal’

William Penuel, Distinguished Professor of education, works with educators to design science curricula for high school students that align with the Next Generation Science Standards. This set of educational guidelines seeks to build on the natural curiosity of young people.

He said schools can meet students where they live by building lessons around issues that young people care about. That may range from how climate change or air pollution affect their communities to investigating worsening health disparities among communities in the United States.

“It’s impossible to build a good learning culture in a classroom without also building good relationships between teachers and their students,” Penuel said. “We need to ask: How much do I know about my students? Do I know what they care about? Do I know what’s worrying them?”

Amid the pandemic, Penuel worries the media, parents and administrators have been too focused on “returning to normal,” when the reality is, “normal didn’t work for lots and lots of kids,” he said.

The researchers agree that sending children to class as if nothing has happened isn’t an option. Schultz wants schools to remember that learning should be an exciting, engaging and humanizing experience.

“This has been a hard year plus, and I think we’ve forgotten the excitement to learn in our rush to repair,” she said. “I think we really need to focus on joy.”

Living the dream

For Bustamante-Aguilar, she felt a rush of excitement to return to the classroom going into her third year of teaching despite the adversities and uncertainties of the times. She believes in the beauty of her students’ dreams to create change. Working with her school’s student board, Bustamante-Aguilar introduced social dreaming, a practice she engaged in as a CU Boulder student in the Aquetza program, a transformative educational experience for Latinx youth. The student board wanted to be seen by their teachers, so they reimagined their school through social dreaming.

“In order to change our world and create the world we want to live in, we need to allow ourselves to remove the barriers that have been put in front of us,” she said.

“We envision a world where students are at the forefront of their education, where they decide what we’re doing, where everybody who is a part of a school system has power, and it’s not limited to a few people.”

The students’ dreams are now being incorporated into school decision-making and seminars.

While Bustamante-Aguilar fully acknowledges this has been a particularly hard moment for education, she also believes in opportunities to make real change if we let these dreams take hold.

“Ultimately, I became a teacher because I want to connect with young people,” she said. “I think that young people are not going to be the change, they are the change, and they have so much power.”