Empowering the Nonconsumers
My experience with Education Innovation Fellowship began with readings directly from or steeped in the language of the private sector, most notably The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I am naturally suspicious of conflating of business and education; I fundamentally believe that a school cannot be run like a business. But as I read about hybrids and—be still, my Silicon Valley-watching heart—disruptive innovations, I quickly identified my students’ place in this world.
Allow me to contextualize the Island of Misfit Toys that is my school (LAYC Career Academy). We are a public charter school for 16- to 24-year-old disconnected youth. The term “disconnected youth” can be generally defined as youth who are neither attending school nor pursuing a career (the summary preceding this report paints an accurate picture). Roughly 70% of our students are seeking a GED, a test that has undergone significant, anxiety-inducing changes since 2014 to align with Common Core. The other 30% of students have attained a high school credential, but they are not on a specific career trajectory. Sure, they might work nights at Target or in the back of a restaurant, but they want more for their long-term future. We offer students GED preparation, access to free college credits at local universities, and career training as medical assistants and A+ computer technicians. We are in our third year of operations and are constantly iterating on our model. Not a six-week interval has gone by where we haven’t tried something new.
We take all comers. All of them. Our students fit every negative label that can be applied to minority youth in this country—teen mother, ex-con, illegal, dropout; the list goes on. In every negative label, we choose to see strength, and positive youth development is a core tenet of our mission. What we refuse to do is pretend that by simply attending school (our school, a former school, any school), a student can read at a level equivalent to his or her age. We refuse to lie to students about where they are academically and where they need to get in order to (for example) never pay for remedial college classes that will fail to earn them a single college credit. A high school credential means far less at my school than a reading score on the NWEA MAP that reflects a non-normed, criteria-based, 12th grade proficiency level.
So who are my students to the world of business? Nonconsumers! The attraction of blended and personalized learning immediately crystallized for me when I read the definition of this term. As a GED math instructor, my students were quite literally nonconsumers of their education—many, it appears, from a very young age. If a student has found his or her way to our doors, they are thirsty for a disruption to a non-consuming past. Whatever went on with their education before did not work, and as a result, they either abandoned or were abandoned by traditional education systems (which, certainly in D.C., includes charter schools). But as varied as the reasons for that abandonment may be, blended and personalized learning sheds light on a possible way forward for all of our students.
As I have experimented with variations of station and flex rotations, one thing has become readily apparent: Giving control, choice, and trust back to my students pays dividends. I have seen marked increases in their stamina, focus, and productivity, not to mention their independence, self-advocacy, and overall positivity towards school. And while my students will never file silently from station to station while a one-minute song plays over my computer’s speakers (and, quite frankly, I don’t care), they will help and redirect each other, push themselves forward, track their progress, and write ambitious weekly goals. And they will loudly celebrate victories and express frustration. Fine. Good. Passion about school is exactly what I want. As I watched the riots in Baltimore unfold last week, I saw people struggling to find power and control over their own lives. At the same time, I am watching in my classroom what empowerment can do for someone who has previously felt none.
The edtech tools available for the “misfit toys” that populate my school are starkly undeveloped, so we’re on the prowl for the best solutions for older students with wide ranging skills. (Yes, I’m dropping hints to any edtech developers out there looking for a relatively underserved part of the market.) Since we are unapologetically mastery-based (grades don’t exist at our school) and driven by the needs of whomever walks in the door on a given day (which is always a surprise), truly adaptive, multimodal software is our top priority. It appears that we will probably not find the perfect edtech fit—after all, how could one size fit all misfits? But the steps we are taking to personalize the learning process are leading to a fundamental shift in the mindset of our students. And it is empowering for everyone involved.