Banner image: A car parade for graduates of Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado, in May 2021. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa)
The more than 300 students at New Vista High School in Boulder left their classrooms in March 2020 for what would be more than a year. As COVID-19 spread throughout the country, New Vista’s prom was canceled, and so was its graduation ceremony.
But the community wanted to make sure that those students got a little bit of closure.
Parents, teachers and neighbors organized a parade for the innovative Boulder school’s graduating seniors. They decorated their lawns and held up signs. Principal Kirk Quitter wore what he called a “crazy red suit.” The seniors drove by in their family cars, listening to the cheers.
“It was so sweet and so successful that the juniors then said, ‘You’re doing this for us next year, no matter what,’” Quitter said.
Today, most students at New Vista are back in school in-person four days a week. But the effects of the pandemic still linger. Even in April, Quitter said that many of the school’s freshmen didn’t know how to find their classrooms.
Katherine Schultz, dean of the School of Education at CU Boulder, sees a lesson in those kinds of stories: Even amid a pandemic, communities can still come together to create something unique and enduring. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed opportunity gaps and other inequities in the educational system throughout the United States. But she and her colleagues are also increasingly seeing the past year as an opportunity to reimagine how we teach kids in this country.
“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.”
Researchers across the School of Education are working to build on those kinds of opportunities. Some educators, for example, are exploring how digital tools can support kids in their learning, even after students have returned to in-person classrooms. Others are focusing on designing curricula that are more relevant to the lives of young people—and have examined how schools can succeed by becoming hubs for their entire communities.
As William Penuel, a distinguished professor of education, put it: When it comes to education, “normal didn’t work for lots and lots of kids.”
Screens among us
In March 2020, as students filed out of the New Vista school building for the final time that year, both pupils and teachers alike had to become quick experts in an unexpected field: The dreaded teleconferencing software.
Now, with students back in their classrooms across the country, many schools are facing a different question: How much of a role should those same digital tools, from Zoom to Google Classroom and even online games, continue to play in K-12 education?
One recent report released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) based at CU Boulder suggests that fulltime virtual learning can exacerbate existing inequities in education.
“We keep hearing, ‘kids are getting Zoom fatigue. They don’t want to be staring at a screen all day,’” said José Ramón Lizárraga, assistant professor of education at CU Boulder.
Lizárraga (they/them) studies strategies for digital collaboration and learning for young learners. And they said that while online education can present a lot of challenges, many of the complaints about online education from parents and school administrators may miss the point. Plenty of kids, and especially students of color, have long been frustrated with their school curricula, Lizárraga said. Young people often don’t see their lives or the issues they care about reflected in their lessons.
“Kids have no problem playing Among Us for six hours,” said Lizárraga, 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 in the School of Education who has collaborated with Lizárraga in a collaborative effort called Critical Digital Pedagogies, agreed. He believes that online tools can, and maybe even should, transform the classrooms of the future. He asks, for example, how schooling might change if educators intentionally designed curricula to foster deeper collaboration.
No matter how schools navigate that balance between the digital and physical, Cortez said that teachers must work to make their lessons more meaningful for their students—centering learning on the everyday lives of young people and their valued 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.
Furtak is a professor of STEM education and associate dean of faculty at CU Boulder. She’s also a mother of a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old who spent large amounts of time at home over the last year. During those long days, they peppered Furtak with questions—so many questions, such as why can you only see the moon during the day sometimes, 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 kids 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 kids have balanced looking after their younger siblings while keeping up on their own homework.
Furtak, at least, is in no hurry to reinstate those lines when kids begin the next school year in September. Science education, she said, works best when students have the chance to 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?”
Penuel works 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 Unitied 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 my students? Do I know what they care about? Do I know what’s worrying them?”
Remembering the joy
Those sorts of relationships are the bread and butter of a model of K-12 education called “community schooling,” said Michelle Renée Valladares.
She’s the associate director of the NEPC. In 2017, researchers at the center and the Learning Policy Institute released a report on the pillars of successful community schools.
Some community schools, for example, host walk-in health clinics on their campuses. Others offer expanded after-school programs or English language classes for parents. Most offer a combination of these services and more and also develop curricula tailored to the unique cultures and histories of their communities—from refugee groups living in New York City to factory workers in Rust Belt Ohio.
“When the school is also the health clinic, you have new way to invite families into school campuses,” Renée Valladares said.
She also believes that these institutions may provide schools with a new way of teaching kids as the U.S. begins the era of post-pandemic education.
“Community schools are used to being innovative. They’re used to being nimble, and they have strong relationships with their communities,” Renée Valladares said.
More educators are starting to agree with her. In 2019, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law that makes it easier for the state’s public schools to become community schools.
No matter how schools meet the challenges of post-pandemic education, researchers at CU Boulder tend to agree on one thing: Sending kids back to class in the fall as if nothing had happened isn’t an option. Schultz doesn’t want schools to forget that learning is supposed to be exciting, either.
“This has been a hard year, 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.”
Quitter, for his part, is still reveling in the joy of having students back at New Vista. And, yes, there will be another car parade this June, and he plans to don his trademark red suit.
“It just feels like home to have the hallways filled with kids, the classrooms filled with kids."