The COVID-19 shutdown has closed off so many opportunities to so many students; in some ways, the education story of this year is a story of uncountable losses. However, in schools across the country, creative teachers are working with imagination and resourcefulness to ensure that while the shutdown has closed many doors, it cannot close all of them. These educators have used a variety of approaches to ensure that their students have access to multiple pathways and opportunities for learning. In some cases, teachers are building on the work or creative projects that students have immersed themselves in with schools shut down; in other cases, they are creating new opportunities that students can choose to focus on in the absence of classes. Here are the stories of a few such teachers and the approaches they are taking to build on learning their students do outside the classroom.
Noble High School
At Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine, there is a program called Multiple Pathways; this is an alternative program designed to focus on student growth in four domains: personal identity, social interaction, community service, and intellectual inquiry. Before the pandemic, the program was already designed to incorporate outdoor adventures, service projects, and experiential learning. One element was the individual project, an option in which a student could earn academic credit by embarking on 60 hours of learning, practice, or creation in a field of their choice, and then writing a reflection explaining how their work demonstrated growth in a particular academic standard. This pre-existing program was a gift to students in the shutdown, who suddenly found themselves with the opportunity to spend hours playing music, building, or practicing a craft or skill. By accessing this program and fulfilling its requirements, students could make their self-directed learning count toward graduation.
“[Students] feel honored and respected that their work matters and their learning matters,” says Jen England, the Multiple Pathways program coordinator. The students who have taken advantage of this program during the shutdown have pursued a wide variety of interests: one took an online course on film-making; one worked on music with instructors from the Portsmouth Music and Art Center; one designed an independent study on post-secondary planning.
Ben Chase, a teacher in the Multiple Pathways program, was concerned about the isolation of students cut off from school. He designed a volunteer gardening program on the grounds of Noble High School, giving students a chance to connect and engage in meaningful work outdoors once a week. The program is entirely voluntary and not for credit right now, but students still come every week, drawn by the opportunity to be together and to complete a challenging project. If he decides that it would benefit the students to get academic credit, the independent project process within the Multiple Pathways program will make it easy for him to connect the students’ outdoor work to academic skills and knowledge. For now, however, Ben is happy to keep the program optional and low-pressure—a source of meaning and connection.
Nokomis Regional High
At Nokomis Regional High, Cara Flannery, ELO coordinator, devotes all her time to finding ways to help students turn their passions or ambitions into learning experiences. Through years of dedicated work, Cara and other Nokomis staff have built partnerships with local businesses that enable students to participate in both short-term work experiences and longer-term internships. These partnerships have paid off during the shutdown, providing enriching experiences when so many other forms of enrichment for students have vanished.
One partnership that has been in place since 2019 is a collaboration with Hometown Health, where students who are interested in healthcare careers can complete internships. At the student health center, a student intern does clerical work, filing, and cleaning, edits the calendar, organizes supplies, and learns about confidentiality laws. She will get elective credit in career and education development.
The school’s partnership with the Sebasticook Valley Federal Credit Union has also provided extraordinary work experiences to students. At the student branch of the credit union that is located inside the school, students work all of the jobs, learning the many facets of a bank. Although this branch is currently closed due to COVID-19, two students are completing paid internships in the Newport branch of the bank. Other students are editing copy for a publishing company, creating content for the school library blog, or interning at a farm as an avenue toward veterinary studies.
As Cara explains, “It’s the mindset of: ‘You want to do that? Let’s make it happen.’” A perfect example of this is a student named Casey, who reached out to Cara about starting a school newspaper. With Cara’s help, the student gathered a group of interested peers and is working on the first edition of a school newspaper called The Burgundy and White. During this time of upheaval for students, when so many creative avenues that schools provide are shut down, this willingness to “make it happen” is an essential way to open up pathways for learning.
Kennebunk High School
At Kennebunk High School, the alternative program led by Ed Sharood and Jacqui Holmes provides another model for enabling students’ individual passions to drive their learning. Every Monday, students in the program work on individual projects in which they are paired with community partners. This fall, for example, one student is working with a Kennebunk composting group to develop a handout and help build 100 lobster trap compost bins. Another student is building raised beds, while still another is helping build a cross country course at the school. All of these students check in with their teachers to get direct instruction in academic skills or content that links to their project; when students complete their project, they give a presentation about what they have created and learned. This linking of practical work to academic standards makes it possible for the students to receive credit toward graduation for learning that occurs outside school.
Reflecting on the power of this model—especially during the shutdown—to help students find meaning in their work, Holmes says, “The project-based model is where learning happens. I believe so strongly in it.” Holmes and Sharood, along with all of the other teachers seeking to give students credit for work done outside of school, are undaunted by the shutdown; despite its difficulties, they are opening up doorways and pathways for their students to explore.
Interested in implementing pathways in your context? Check out our newest report:
Creating Equitable Pathways to Ensure Civic Engagement and College and Career Readiness for All Students
Learn how equitable pathways can help all students graduate with skills that transfer across disciplines, experiences that qualify them for employment in well-paying careers, and the ability to critically examine today’s social and political environment.