In 2021, Human Restoration Project and REENVISIONED hosted conversations, with Local Voices Network's technology, to hear from students, educators, families, and community members to reimagine education. Co-prepared by young people and organizational leaders, these findings reflect an urgent need for reimagining and humanizing education.
We hosted over 600 voices in 117 conversations across 37 states.
We developed youth partnerships to plan for change through conversations. We sought voices of youth, teachers, families, and community members to answer questions on the purpose of schooling. These conversations were collected and transcribed over 100 days.
Each conversation was looked at through a qualitative and quantitative analysis, both by our team and volunteer conversation participants. Then, our team created narratives and artwork to propel our partners in making a difference.
We cannot rehumanize our schools without understanding how we think about what it means to be human - individually and in community.
While our focus was on learning how to evolve school post-pandemic, in our 100 Days conversations the first question was not, “how would you change school?” Rather, we ask participants first to root in their own values, dreams, and beliefs by asking them to consider what makes a good life for them, and what makes the kind of thriving community they would want to inhabit. This was intentional - without shared visions for our lives and communities, we cannot know how to start working together constructively.
As Robin D.G. Kelley notes, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” While we do want to change schools, and perhaps even knock down some of the current structures and approaches that are harmful, ultimately positive change doesn’t come from the tearing down process but from the building up together process.
When we asked about a good life, participants did not linger too long, if at all, on traditional metrics of success like prominence, fame, money, career success, or power. Instead, a good life for participants was multifaceted: they talked about meaningful relationships with family, friends, and community, productive work, creative self-expression and the development of a sense of individuality, civic engagement and world-making - getting to work with others to influence the community and world they live in, being healthy - in mind, body, and spirit.
Perhaps proving themselves collectively as wise as Aristotle, participants also identified two preconditions to enjoying these elements: the freedom to make choices in their lives; and ensuring that basic needs of safety, food, housing, etc., were met. Aristotle asserted that no person could experience true well-being if these two preconditions were not met by their context.
The aspect of a good life that came up most frequently across the conversations was meaningful relationships and a sense of community. At times this was described specifically as having a strong social support system and people to lean on, but it was also described simply as the need for belonging and both loving and being loved came out strongly. Participants talked about the importance of family, both immediate and intergenerational. Friendship was also discussed in depth - close friends and wider community acquaintances.
A second key part of a good life for participants was productive work. Productive work isn’t necessarily the most highly paid, flashy, nor one’s primary source of purpose - but it is work that offers financial stability - enough money so one can consistently pay the bills. In addition to allowing one to satisfy their basic needs, productive work in a good life at the very least doesn’t feel like it is killing one’s soul, and at the best aligns with one’s strengths, interests, potentially their passions and ideally is “good work” useful to the world beyond one’s self.
A third key component of a good life is creative self expression. To participants this means being able to develop a sense of self-awareness and express their individuality in a way that feels authentic to them. It means being able to grow and change over time, exploring new opportunities and ways of being but staying true to oneself throughout. Many participants expressed that this aspect of themselves included a desire to live lives of meaning and purpose - lives they could be proud of when they reflected back near the end of their lives. Justin, a participant from California, “...at the end of my days, I want to be someone that I can be proud of. I want to feel like I’ve at least made an impact and made a change.”
The fourth part of a good life that participants discussed was being part of making their world with others - aka civic engagement. This took many forms. Politically in a democracy this meant getting to participate in the political decisions that shape our lives and having a voice and collaborating with others in the community to work on and organize around the issues that matter to you. Additionally, participants talked about world-making and civic engagement as the desire to have a positive impact. This included helping other people, broadly helping out in the community, and being able to contribute to projects that had a purpose beyond oneself and not feeling like, “everything is about you.”
Health was the fifth key component to a good life. Participants consistently expressed that without health, the rest of the aspects of a good life were hard to truly enjoy. Health was broadly defined - it included physical health, but participants also talked about mental and emotional health as being just as important for a good life. This included ideas of cultivating healthy attitudes, dispositions, and skills, such as gratitude, equanimity, and joy.
Participants talked about the fact that these components of a good life are incredibly important, and, kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - if a person’s basic needs for safety, food, water, and shelter are not met - or people you care about cannot meet these needs - then it’s difficult to pursue fulfilling the rest of what makes a good life.
Finally, participants also talked about freedom as a precondition for living a good life - in particular, the freedom to choose, the freedom to pursue opportunities and passions, the freedom to move around, and the freedom to fail and make mistakes. The preconditions and components are overlapping, because some freedoms depend on having sufficient resources for choice.
Before we can discuss how schools can help create thriving communities, we need to understand just what, exactly, is a thriving community?
Our schools are our primary public socializing institution. Yet, the collective purpose of school in creating thriving democratic communities has nearly been lost in today’s conversations. We at 100 Days of Conversations believe it’s important to bring back the conversation about how school creates the “we” - at a local level as well as nationally and even globally. How we do school shapes how we think about who belongs, who counts, how we work together, and even what we want to achieve.
Which begs a few questions: who do we want to become, and what community do we want to create together? Are we practicing the people and communities we want to be?
As with good lives, Robin D.G. Kelley’s insight is critical, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” The 100 Days conversations asked participants to describe what makes a thriving community to them. And, as with the question about what makes a good life, common themes ran across ages, roles, geographies, and identities.
“People can’t think about thriving until they are able to stop thinking about just existing.” - Sara, MN
Similar to answers about a “good life” requiring that basic needs are met, participants felt that thriving communities required a baseline of sufficient resources so that everyone’s basic health and material needs are met. This included clean air, water, food, and shelter, among other necessities. Participants discussed how access to resources should be equitable and universal - and also is not a once-off endeavor - it’s ongoing and eternal - which can only be achieved through government policies that center the well-being of children, families, and communities and provide a solid social safety net.
In a thriving community there is safety and trust. People are able to trust those around them, even if they do not know them personally, and feel safe both physically and psychologically. The young people on our research team saw this as related to basic needs, but deserving of its own category. More psychological in nature, trust is the “belief in the reliability, trust, ability or strength of something.” Safety is reliant on trust and a sense of community - we need to believe in the reliability of our neighbors and community members to be non-violent, i.e. to not harm or threaten our physical integrity, to respect our property, and to take action to care for us if something threatens our property, neighborhood, or physical selves.
"What can we do together that we cannot do alone?" - Ashley, National Conversation
A third component of thriving communities was that they were filled with reciprocal relationships and networks of mutual support rooted in love. This goes beyond trust. In thriving communities, people show up for one another in hard times and to celebrate so that no one is going it alone, “because you can’t always do everything on your own.” Networks of mutual support meant that you could depend on other people to step up and support with respect and dignity.
A fourth component of thriving communities is that they share a sense of Vision, Values, & Goals. This meant community members actively cultivate a vision of who and how they want to be that fosters a sense of unity within diversity. For participants this meant members of the community actively try to develop a shared understanding of what the community “is” and wants to be, and its purpose or “why,” beyond just its existence as a collection of individuals. This was considered to work best when paired with shared values and shared goals that people came together to work around, and when underpinned by the sense of safety and trust discussed above.
Diversity emerged as a fifth core component in participant’s definition of a thriving community. This may at first seem at odds with the idea of unity, but just like a forest or other natural ecosystem, human communities are more resilient when they are diverse and recognize the synergy and interdependence of the different parts. Participants saw diversity of perspectives, opinions, identities, experiences, and approaches within a community as necessary for thriving.
In their idea of a thriving community, diversity didn’t just mean that the different perspectives and identities co-existed, it meant that each person is valued, accepted, and loved as an individual but simultaneously connected to a greater whole. It means everyone is included and welcomed in their unique contribution and feels as though they have a purpose or role within the greater whole (connected to the unity / shared purpose!). This means that while there might be incredible diversity, community members still need to interact with one another in a way that goes beyond the superficial to a level of mutual respect and collaboration, even when that can be a challenge.
“People [need] to feel like they have some say in what’s happening.” - Michael, MN
A sixth core component of a thriving community was democratic voice. For participants this meant that there were ways to come together and hear one another to hear each other’s stories and understand perspectives, and that decisions were made in a way that would ensure each person’s voice was heard, acknowledged, and considered. The hope was that this kind of dialogue would promote better connections and equity by ensuring that different people’s experiences informed policy and practice, which would make for more effective problem solving for common benefit.
Research suggests there are three aspects of empathy: 1) Cognitive Empathy, or taking another’s perspective; 2) Emotional Empathy, or feeling what another feels; and Empathic Concern, or Compassion and Kindness, which is when you take action to support or alleviate another’s feelings.
100 Days participants felt that in thriving communities, members actively cultivated all three aspects of empathy. They noted that thriving first requires that everyone engage in cognitive empathy and seeks to understand different perspectives. Perspective taking requires making an effort to grasp intellectually and emotionally the ways that other people’s situations are not the same as yours, and not being judgmental.
Participants also noted the importance of emotional empathy and genuine interest in others’ experiences. Cultivating this kind of empathy requires, “not passive hospitality but a real, active pursuit of connection.” Finally, they talked about the importance of compassion and helping one another - in particular across lines of difference (i.e. political, racial, or economic) that might otherwise inhibit one’s compassion.
Finally, the eighth component of a thriving community is that all members have freedom. Participants felt freedom was an important component of thriving communities, and by this they meant three different things. First, the freedom for each person to grow, pursue their interests and passions, develop into and then creatively express their own unique individual self. Second, the freedom to pursue economic opportunity and advancement to ensure they can fulfill their basic needs as well as a sense of purpose and contribution. Third, and on which the other two rest, thriving communities provide members with the opportunity to makes choices about their lives according to their own values, and to grow and change those choices as they learn and evolve.
An important point that emerged from the 100 Days participants, is that while there is considerable discussion about equity, it’s often not particularly well-defined.
A frequent assertion was that equity is not the same as equality; and another is that future opportunity is often mistaken for current equity of experience today.
Equity is on many people’s minds these days, particularly after the murder of George Floyd and millions more people joined the movement for more action to be taken in service of equity and justice in our justice, civic, and schooling systems (among others). In 100 Days, students, parents, and educators discussed what equity in education looked like to them.
However, the desire for definition goes beyond these simple equity vs. equality or future vs. now distinctions - without a clear definition of the kind of equity being discussed, and what that actually looks like in practice, it’s nearly impossible to move from conversations to change in any of our systems.
Equitable distribution of funding, facilities, and other resources across the school system as a whole (across schools, districts, cities and states) were a primary way participants envisioned equity being practiced in education. Many noted it has not been achieved, so ensuring equitable distribution of resources is one of the main policy changes that could help us foster equity - what we invest in one student or set of students should be fair in comparison with what we invest in other students.
For some specific examples, schools in urban areas have a harder time recruiting and keeping teachers, and oftentimes teachers in urban schools are not specifically trained for low-income urban context and its challenges, and they may not deeply understand their students’ experiences outside of school. Within schools or classrooms, resource distribution is also a key part of equity.
While our discussion focused on education equity, participants discussed how equity in education truly depends on an equitable distribution of resources beyond schooling systems as well: participants discussed that true equity would be when students have stable housing, access to medical care, healthy and supportive relationships with at least 1-2 adults, or access to safe living conditions, and all of their other needs. A secure social safety net is important for education - and for thriving beyond school. This means working within education but also organizing outside of education for change.
The idea of “voice” came up frequently when participants discussed what equity looks like to them. Most often this involved centering student voice and valuing student perspectives across important conversations and decisions in the school - a.k.a. giving students power and ownership - was identified as a key part of equity. This is the idea of “no decision about us without us.”
For participants, equity in practice would look like students having a seat at the table and a say in the decisions that mattered to them or affected their experience. At the very least, it should include students being allowed to develop their own views and perspectives on the content in class. Rather than recipients of school, students were imagined as co-creators of learning experiences and environments.
Furthermore, participants talked about how it’s important to have a diversity of student voices represented, everyone has a seat at the table, not just always going to the young people who are doing well, getting good grades, or have the best relationships with teachers. In addition, thinking about diversity in voices in terms of intersectionality, not just race, gender, class, age, ethnicity, language, but making sure different kinds of intersectional identities are heard and included and valued.
One of the ways diversity was talked about was in terms of representation. This was partly simply making sure different identities and perspectives were included in the curriculum - for instance, including female authors in books read, ensuring different kinds of families are included in stories, different identities of scientists in history and science, or ensuring everyone has access to an ethnic studies course.
But it also means ensuring that teachers and other adults at the school are diverse. For instance, ensuring all students interact with teachers of different races and genders - black male teachers were identified as particularly important but difficult to find. And, that different student identities were represented in higher level courses and that all students had the opportunity to interact and work with other young people of diverse identities.
At times, “diversity” seems to get conflated with “race” in discussions. Participants talked about how there needs to be a value on multiple different kinds of diversity - cultural, racial, socioeconomic, gender, physical ability - and how it’s important to see how these different identities can intersect at times.
A part of this is seeing and accepting people as unique and whole people beyond any label to ensure everyone feels they can belong, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, language, ability differences, or otherwise. As one participant mentioned, this means that "No one leaves feeling ‘no one even saw me; no one even knew I was there."
Another part of valuing diversity is ensuring students and educators learn about power, inequality, and inequity. Research has found that students of color who learn the world is fair can end up internalizing and blaming themselves for issues caused by systemic racism and unfair policies.
As 100 Days participants discussed equity meant that pedagogy was humanistic. For participants, this meant that:
1. All people, students, educators, families, and others, are seen and valued in their full humanity, regardless of performance;
2. Experiences are individualized or tailored to each person’s strengths, interests, needs, and areas of growth;
3. Learning is accessible to all, regardless of learning difference or need;
4. There’s an element of ownership and choice on the part of students;
5. and, Outcomes or “success” is measured beyond a singular standardized measure like test scores.
Fundamentally, humanistic pedagogy is an approach to education that “helps bring us alive.”
It’s time to rethink what we consider to be most important about the school experience.
Through 100 Days of Conversations, young people, educators, family and community members across the country talked together about their learnings and realizations about school when the typical experience was disrupted by COVID.
While the current public narrative is largely about “learning loss” (the perceived decrease in test scores during the pandemic), this was not what was on the minds of 100 Days participants. The things they realized were most important (though often overlooked), included: social connections of all kinds; the ability to create engaging, differentiated classroom practices (so much more challenging virtually); and simply the physical infrastructure and the different kinds of supports available when school was in person (included mental health support, particularly).
Additionally despite how often negative stories of school are highlighted, participants frequently shared how much they simply missed being in school with others (adults and students alike!) for a variety of reasons. There is something about the broadly shared U.S. school experience that people really missed during the pandemic.
Social Connections were hands-down the aspect of school that people discussed as more important than they had realized previously.While many young people talked about how much they missed their old friends and making new friends, this wasn’t the only aspect of social connection that was missed - they also talked about how they hadn’t realized how much sharing physical space with different people mattered to their well-being, as well as having opportunities to develop social skills.
Being able to develop deep relationships with teachers, and with other classmates, felt harder in the virtual or disrupted COVID environment, and it became clear those interactions were important for learning as well as for feeling connected. As educators and students begin to enter the school building once again, it’s imperative that we provide space to introduce and rebuild relationships. The fact that strong social connections are central should not be surprising given the extensive evidence from research that they are key to our sense of happiness and well-being, as well as to our physical health.
It wasn’t until we started learning online that we realized how important being within a classroom space could be. Although some students thrived online, for many simply sharing physical space and getting to interact through casual conversations in hallways, the lunchroom, outside, and before or after school were more important for happiness and health than people realized previously. While many people may know that strong relationships are key to happiness, research has also found that simply the number of people someone encounters and interacts with in a day, even superficially, significantly contributes to one’s sense of well-being. Participants grasped this importance intuitively.
Beyond the relationships being intrinsically valuable, the interactions with others as a way to build social skills was identified as far more important than participants felt they realized before COVID. Many felt that students were missing out on the ability to develop skills in public speaking, as well as in simply creating and maintaining relationships with others. In-person school was missed as a place where we practice being in relationship with others and in community.
Another aspect of school that was deeply missed during the pandemic was the range of coursework and interactive classroom practices that being in person allows. While some remote teaching allowed for adaptation in terms of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning, students and teachers alike missing some of the options available in person for engaging coursework, flexible learning, and the ways that being in person throughout the day allowed for support in motivation and accountability that being at home and remote did not.
In the shift to virtual learning, both students and teachers were caught off-guard, and it was no doubt difficult to recreate engaging practices from the classroom in an online space. Many learners described a lack of authentic group learning, as the connection across the screen just wasn’t the same, especially for disabled learners. The lack of a shared space meant that students (and teachers) often felt left out of the classroom environment and it became difficult to communicate. Students missed the “back and forth” that occurred in a typical lesson: the questions, reactions, and laughter, where online spaces could often be silent and sterile without the rapport that being in person can provide.
Shifting online meant that many lessons were relatively the same: a teacher would address a specific topic and assign work or communicate information across the device. It was much more difficult to address the unique needs of each learner. Some learners benefited from being around their peers to have critical conversations, while others missed the ability to have a teacher work with them one-on-one. Yet, some students thrived in this mode of learning, and saw a lot of benefits from a virtual education. There may be some benefits to virtual learning for some learners that we can utilize in reimagining education.
When we went online, many had difficulty staying focused on schoolwork. The lack of a routine and set schedule meant that learners struggled utilizing at-home time for what is typically “at-school learning”. Being at home led to increased distractions, because the home isn’t associated with, as one student described, “grind-time”. Having a teacher to guide learners and ensure they understood material was seen as a positive for many learners.
Being away from campus meant that many recognized for the first time the amount of services that schools provide. For example, the massive burden lifted by free school lunches. As one participant commented, “the pandemic has really brought to light, not new issues, but pre-existing issues, it just amplified a lot of them for a lot of folks.” For the first time, many districts provided free at-home WiFi and free breakfast & lunch services for all who requested it. Schools are more important than simply providing an education, they’re a community service.
During a global pandemic, mental health support services are/were needed more than ever. Yet, many districts cut funding at the worst possible time. A common theme across students and educators of all ages was the mental toll associated with a disrupted schedule, an isolated virtual environment, and of course, the stress of a global pandemic. The virtual situation exacerbated what was often already poor access to mental health supports in schools and broader communities.
The pandemic exacerbated the inequities that have existed since the founding of the United States. Conversations frequently highlighted the disparities of people of color and those of low socioeconomic status, calling upon schools and public officials to address these underlying systemic problems. Even when the pandemic is resolved, schools cannot be welcoming, safe, community spaces until this is addressed.
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