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This is our second “spotlight series” episode where we’re reaching out to schools who are doing intriguing progressive practices that could inspire and influence others to do the same. Each has a twist on how their school is operated, and we’re bringing in students and teachers to talk about it. They’re not all perfect, and they’d all acknowledge there are things they’d change; but there’s so much to learn from these schools as we reimagine education in our communities.
We are joined by students and faculty from Sora Schools, a 7-12 online-only school currently enrolling students in the United States. They're in their third year of operation. Sora prides itself on its project-based curriculum that centers fun, intriguing activities for students, anywhere.
The school is entirely online with a unique schedule that highlights possibilities of virtual spaces. What made Sora Schools stand out to me were the pedagogical shifts they were making as a result of being online. As we highlight in our Virtual Learning Handbook: teaching a remote class can actually bring about community and intriguing pedagogical shifts — it doesn’t have to simply be isolation and replication of what people had to do in-person! Sora is using this virtual space for some really innovative work.
To learn more, we’re talking today with Keegan, an 8th grader at Sora; Angela Anskis, a humanities expert at Sora; and Garrett Smiley, the CEO and co-founder.
Sora Schools, a virtual, project-based school for students in the United States
0:00:02.5 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to episode 114 of our podcast. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm part of the progressive education non-profit Human Restoration Project. Before we get started, I want to let you know this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Darren Uscianowski, Shannon Oliveira and Jan Ghalib. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
0:00:42.7 CM: This is our second spotlight series episode, where we're reaching out to schools who are doing intriguing progressive practices that could both inspire and influence others to do the same, each has a twist on how their school is operated, and we're bringing in students and teachers to talk about it. They're not all perfect, and I think that they acknowledge that there are ways that they can change, but there's so much to learn from these schools as we re-imagine education in our communities. Today we're featuring Sora Schools a project-based online, middle and high school, Sora prides itself on its project-based curriculum that centers fun and intriguing ideas for students anywhere in the United States.
0:01:15.4 CM: The entire school is online with a unique schedule that highlights the possibilities of virtual spaces, what made Sora School stand out to me were the pedagogical shifts they were making as a result of being online, as we highlight in our virtual learning handbook, teaching in a real class can actually bring about community and lead to a lot of pedagogical shifts. It doesn't simply have to be in isolation or replication of what people are already doing in person. Sora is taking this virtual space and using it for innovative work.
0:01:55.5 CM: Students have two different learning environments, there's expeditions and individualized projects. Expeditions are unique courses that are designed by teachers and students that are traditional curriculum with a more interdisciplinary and interesting twist. So for example, there's the Science of Marvel, D&D Dungeons and Dragons or banned books. These classes are 45 minutes, two days a week, either on Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Friday, because the school's online, students have a choice of taking their class in the morning or afternoon, signing up for about two classes a cycle and a cycle is every six weeks. So students are flowing between a lot of different expeditions over the course of a year, and the other part of their day, students work on individual projects that they develop with a mentor who meets with them at least once a week to guide them.
0:02:30.2 CM: Most of this is asynchronous work on topics that a student is interested in, then the remainder of time is dedicated to morning and afternoon check-ins, additional one-on-one meetings, perhaps additional asynchronous course work, some whole school events and after school clubs. It's very reminiscent of like a college schedule as students are able to be flexible with their time, they have a lot of breaks throughout the day. It just has that vibe. The schedule is relatively similar for teachers, they typically have four classes a cycle, they meet with students before and after class, they have help in planning their curriculum from experts, and they also help plan out the school events.
0:03:09.1 CM: In this podcast, we're joined by three different folks. We're joined by Keegan, who is entering the ninth grade, wrapping up his eighth grade year at Sora. We are joined by Angela, who is a teacher at Sora, that you'll hear from in a second, and later on the podcast, you'll hear from Garrett Smiley, who's the CEO and co-founder of Sora schools.
0:03:31.4 Keegan: I feel like it's really just a perfect fit, and I love the way that we do our projects, it allows for freedom and that I get to learn what I actually wanna learn about and at my own pace, and instead of having to have the schedule or instead of me having to fit a schedule and fit a specific path of learning, I can kind of have it fit my desires and my kind of schedule. So I really enjoy that.
0:04:01.9 CM: What is different about this learning environment that you like versus the more traditional school experience?
0:04:02.0 Keegan: It's just so accepting and compromising, I think, and it just really allows for you to kind of display what you like about yourself and what makes you different. And you can really choose to engage with the information that you are interested in. It's also just really accepting of all kinds of people and whoever wants to come, they will be fully accepted into the school and just welcomed by everyone and... Yeah.
0:04:32.0 CM: Sure. Now, that's great to hear. I'll have more questions for you in a second, but I'm gonna turn it over to Angela here. Did you teach in a previous school before you moved over to Sora?
0:04:40.9 Angela: So my experience is in traditional public high school, a little bit of middle school, mostly high school. I taught in Title 1 districts in North Carolina, and then I taught for a year in West Philly, actually. So I was actually thinking about leaving the education field completely with the pandemic, there's just been so many issues, and I feel like that's the understatement of the year, but there has been just so many issues and tension in traditional public schools, and I was just starting to become a little bit disheartened.
0:05:20.3 Angela: And I think the pandemic highlighted a lot of issues that we see in public education, so I really, really wanted to make a change, which was sort of heartbreaking for me, I feel like I almost had an identity crisis because I was that kid in kindergarten who was drawing pictures of her future classroom like it's all that I wanted to do my entire life. So I taught for a few years and I loved the kids, it was never the kids, it was the systems that were in place, but I was honestly burnout, I was exhausted, I felt like I gave so much heart every single day, and it just never seemed.
0:05:54.3 Angela: It seems like there's always more to do, I never felt like I was doing enough, and I think that burnout is a really... It's a real feeling that a lot of teachers deal with. And I was searching on LinkedIn for something new, and I was reading about Sora and I was like, There's no way this is real. Like, is this serious, like, am I being punked right now? This sounds so awesome. And then I ended up getting an interview and our ethos matched up perfectly. I've always been more into alternative education methods to begin with and project-based learning, so it was just perfect.
0:06:30.3 Angela: And it's been almost a year now, and this has just been like my favorite job of all time, and I'm not trying to sell it, but I genuinely love my job, and I'm really happy. And that's something that I didn't experience previously, I thought part of being an adult was just kind of being stressed out all the time and being worried about going in... Having the Sunday scaries, as they like to call them, I thought that was just a part of growing up. I thought every adult felt like that every day going into work, so having this experience is very much like a second chance at education for me, seeing how things can be different and it's been so rewarding. It's been awesome.
0:07:12.9 CM: I totally get that cognitive dissonance, I just left the... I taught in a public school out here in Ohio for the last eight years, I taught digital design. It was super fun. I love doing the work. However, there is a lot of burnout there from having to constantly keep up with everything and all of the various political forces at work that kind of disrupt your daily life that you have to deal with. And I think it's important to tease apart the idea that individual actions in a system for oneself are not necessarily a bad thing, it's completely okay, take care of yourself and still make an impact on people while simultaneously recognizing like, "Hey, we need to change overall systems that way, public education isn't the way that it is."
0:07:56.8 CM: And I think that there's space for folks to learn from a school like Sora in partnership, to see a model of how this works that could work in public education, but has the capability right now of making that a large enough step that they could demonstrate it. I think it would be very difficult to sell a school like this in a public ed system right now, but it could get there with that model in place, if that makes sense. But I wanna hear more about just what it's like to be in a virtual classroom, 'cause that really is a huge distinguisher... What is teaching a day at Sora look like? What is a typical class?
0:08:32.7 Angela: We're really lucky, especially with our middle school this year, it was our first year having a middle school at Sora, and we started off with a very small cohort with about 15 students, and now we have about 30. So we've grown slowly, but it has been amazing to do it that way, 'cause we've kind of gotten to grow into our roles and just see the middle school grow as we would like to. And I think with teaching virtually, I just have more flexibility in my day to get things like assessing done and planning for our expeditions. Having a few different blocks throughout the day where I can do something for myself is awesome, sometimes I even take a walk, and that's something that I would have never imagined to be able to do in a traditional classroom.
0:09:23.4 CM: Yeah, and I know too, in addition to the project-based learning component of all of this, there's also... The classes seem to be a lot different than a traditional class, like I saw... There's a Marvel physics class, there's like a band books class. What kind of classes do you teach?
0:09:41.8 Angela: For me, I'm traditionally a Social Studies educator, I was not happy with having to follow state standards, I'm really into teaching honest history. I think that's the best way to put it. I'm also very passionate about social justice issues as well, so some of my favorite expeditions has definitely been banned books. I loved that expedition. It was back in the fall, Mouse was being banned in a Tennessee School District, and a lot of students had questions about that. They couldn't understand how such an important piece of literature that talks about such a crucial time in history, how that could possibly be banned. And we teamed up with our curriculum designers to create an experience to just dig into that more, look at censorship as well, kind of study law a little bit and just dig into some really awesome classics because if they're banned in some places, they're probably being banned for a reason. And there has to be something really good in that book for them to want to ban it. So it was awesome getting to do that expedition and just really look at that issue more closely, it's because it was a current event.
0:10:55.8 Angela: And that was really missing for me in public schools and teaching traditional social studies, just getting to really focus on current events. So banned books was awesome. Another thing that we do, sometimes we'll do interdisciplinary expeditions, an example of that would be The Dream Vacation expedition we're doing right now. So I teamed up with our STEM expert, Adam, and pretty much what the students are doing is they are researching and creating and trying to sell to us their ultimate dream vacation. So our students are doing research on the cultures, the languages, any currency.
0:11:36.7 Angela: They're also looking at plane tickets to buy, what restaurants they'll be eating at, they're setting realistic budgets, which has been so cool to see and also a little bit funny too just seeing the reactions. 'Cause some students are like, "Oh my goodness, I had no idea. Hotels are like $400 a night." They're like, "I had no idea that things cost this much," so I think it's definitely been a little bit of a wake-up call too like learning the true value of a dollar. But that has been probably my favorite interdisciplinary expedition, just seeing the students get to piece together all these different parts with the culture, and then looking at economics and government systems and also just eco-tourism and tourism in general.
0:12:19.4 Angela: So we do a lot of different expeditions, a fun one that we did was History's Mysteries, and the students were able to even dig into some conspiracies they might be curious about or just mysteries that they have been wondering about. And that was really, really fun. We actually did that around spooky season, near Halloween, just to kind of get in the spirit, so we look a lot at what the students want to learn, and we base our expeditions around that.
0:12:49.2 CM: Yeah, that's super cool. All that sounds highly engaging. The banned books thing to me is heavily appealing as well. I majored in history, so I started off in social studies and I... Is highly relevant. We used to always teach Persepolis. It's cool that you have the opportunity because of the space to do things that you typically wouldn't be able to. And I would also imagine that because of the remote environment, it's easier for you to plan with other instructors because not only do you have a planning period, but it's also like there's less other things that you have to worry about, and you kind of get into that flow state.
0:13:20.9 Angela: And I will add on to that too. Something that I felt was missing in the schools I have previously taught at, was the support of having people help you with lesson plans or creating units, making sure it's engaging. And we have curriculum designers at Sora schools and they collaborate with us directly. We can set up a meeting with them whenever we want, and they're there to support us. We could even come to them with the craziest idea. Like, in the beginning of the year, we're like, "We want to incorporate Minecraft somehow. How are we going to do this?" And it ended up being a really awesome expedition, I actually think it was one of Keegan's favorite expeditions. We did civilization creation using Minecraft, which was a lot of fun. I learned a lot, there's still a lot for me to learn about Minecraft, but it's so nice having that support of your peers to make sure that you are creating the most engaging content for the students and making sure that you're just overall creating the best world class learning experiences.
0:14:24.9 CM: I think that summarizes really well, kind of the academic portion of everything that's going on. So I wanna toss it back over to Keegan. I wanna get into the community stuff, like what it's like relating to your peers, 'cause I would have, at least from my perspective, I'm sure the number one question that you get about online school is the FOMO element the fear of missing out, where it's like you don't have that experience where there's 25 people in a room and you're hanging out before and after school, all that kind of stuff that we traditionally associate with the school experience. How does Sora help you relate to other people? Do you feel connected to other students? Are you developing relationships? How is that working out for you?
0:15:07.1 Keegan: Yeah, Sora is actually really good at keeping us connected, I think it's mainly through the Discord. So we have a Discord server for the entire school and all the different classes, there's different channels. And so if you ever know of someone that you wanna just message, you can just reach out to them by searching them up in the channel, and also just in expeditions, there'll be things like breakout rooms and you can just go into different rooms, talk with your peers and plan what you're gonna do for the project. Sometimes you're put into rooms with specific people and sometimes you can just kinda hop around and join whoever you want to.
0:15:37.2 Keegan: And obviously you do have to make an effort to socialize and talk to your friends and the kids in the school, but it comes really easily. I feel like it's presented in such a digestible way that there's always an opportunity for you to connect with people in some ways. I feel like it being online makes it even easier, especially if you have social anxiety like I do, and you may not be as physically connected, but it is a lot easier to jump into a conversation. 'Cause it's a lot easier to just click, join on a Discord chat than it is to walk over to a group of people that are kind of hanging out.
0:16:11.7 CM: Yeah, yeah, shout out to Discord too, we use Discord in the classroom, and there are a few drawbacks. Girls will like direct messaging and some things which I'm sure you had to deal with. But overall, the concept of being able to have even just an asynchronous service where you can have folks talk to each other as a teacher is super cool. I like being able... Not to be creepy about it, but I like to see students having discussions with each other and knowing what they're talking about. Not because I wanna pry, but more just... It warms my heart. "Oh, these two people actually like talking to each other." It's nice, it's a good feeling.
0:16:46.6 Keegan: They also have a system of student ambassadors and other leadership positions where they will tell kids to reach out to new students. So it's almost like as soon as you enter the school or as soon as you even just view one of the classrooms to think about joining the school... You're being reached out to by the teachers, by the students, and they're just welcoming you. And it's just like a really loving environment that allows you to be accepted and get connected really quickly.
0:17:15.6 CM: It makes me think a lot about remote work as employers are moving to remote environments. The trade-off in terms of relationships is, yes, you feel still connected to the people around you, but it also opens up the door for a lot more. And in a kind of an ironic way community interaction. Because you have the ability to move around. Do you find yourself participating at all in community programs because you have the flexibility with your schedule? Is that a thing?
0:17:48.8 Keegan: Yes, I have a youth group that I meet up with every Wednesday, and then I just have some friends that I'm still connected with that I can hang out, which I think it is definitely important to stay at least somewhat connected with people in a physical place, but it's mostly... Sora and other online friends that I'm talking to.
0:18:08.5 CM: No, I get that. Yeah, I think it's interesting to note how in some ways, as long as you approach it with a certain mindset, the remote work model actually can lead to more in-person relationships because you kinda get to pick and choose where you go, as opposed to you being forced to participate just with a very specific cohort. Another question related the attending the school online and building that online community.
0:18:34.0 CM: That's just a logistics question. The school is seven through 12. I don't know how to ask this question without it being weird. Are you staying home alone all day? Is there any parental concern? I wouldn't care as a parent, but I know that there are parents that care. I remember during COVID, we had a middle school. And middle school parents did not want their kids to be home alone all day, and it was a whole battle. Is that a concern... And either of you can answer this question, but is that a concern that is brought up or is it just kind of assumed that Sora students are okay with what they're doing?
0:19:06.1 Angela: That's a really interesting question, Chris. When I was primarily working with sixth graders at my last school, that was a huge concern. It was a big reason why they wanted to go back in-person. But I think with Sora, if parents... I guess parents can make that decision for their child and what works best for them. I think some students are left alone during the days, others have parents also working at home, or parents maybe that stay at home too. I think with a lot of our world just becoming more remote, it's made it easier for a lot of parents to also work at home. So I do feel like a lot of our students have parents either who work from home or maybe they just have a parent who stays at home with them. But we do... Yeah. We're mostly seventh and eighth grades, so I would say that it's not really a huge concern for us. But when I was teaching a little bit younger, that was definitely a big concern. But that's interesting, Chris, 'cause I haven't really given a lot of thought to that before actually.
0:20:16.2 CM: Conference To Restore Humanity is an invitation for K-12 and college educators to engage in a human-centered system reboot, centering the needs of students and educators toward a praxis of social justice. The traditional conference format doesn't work for everyone. It's costly to attend, environmentally unfriendly, and it doesn't allow everyone to engage or have a voice in the learning community. Our conference is designed around the accessibility and sustainability of virtual learning, while engaging participants in a classroom environment that models the same progressive pedagogy we value with students. Instead of long Zoom presentations with a brief Q and A, keynotes are flipped and attendees will have the opportunity for extended conversation with our speakers, Dr. Henry Giroux, the founding theorist of critical pedagogy, Dr. Denisha Jones, educator, activist and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School, and the Circle Keepers from Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, a student collective focused on social justice. And instead of back-to-back online workshops, we are offering asynchronous learning tracks. You can engage with the content and the community at any time on topics like anti-carceral pedagogy, disrupting linguistic discrimination, designing for neuro-divergence, promoting childism in the classroom and supporting feedback over grades. The Conference to Restore Humanity runs July 25th through the 28th.
0:21:41.2 CM: And as of recording, early bird tickets are still available. It's $150 for four days with discounts available for individuals from historically marginalized communities, as well as group rates. Plus we'll award certificates for teacher training and continuing education credits. See our website, humanrestorationproject.org, for more information, and let's restore humanity together.
0:22:10.9 CM: Can you explain a little bit about a project that you've done that you are super passionate about, that you really love.
0:22:15.2 Keegan: So one project, I feel like this was really unique because I really was allowed to take my own specific direction with it and really learn about something that was pretty far off from what we were [chuckle] actually going over, it feels like. It was like a website creation project and so our task was pretty much just to create a website type format thing with information over anything, we could pretty much just research, whatever we wanted to as long as we were formatting it in the proper website. And then not only would we get abilities for the actual creation and the coding of the website, we would also get other concepts and stuff from whatever we've wrote about in the website. I looked into volcanoes because one of the list of concepts was geo-thermal, whatever, I don't know. [chuckle]
0:23:03.9 Keegan: And so I just found myself researching into all these different types of volcanoes and watching these videos on how volcanoes affect the environment. And so then by the end of it, I had the functioning website, but I was also just like, "Wow, that was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be." And I was just able to gather up all this information and then present it in a... However you really wanted to with different pictures and stuff on the website. And I was just able to learn about something new that I found was really interesting, that I had not even really considered before. And another project, we had an expedition on alien life and trying to see if there could be a hypothetical other life forms on other planets.
0:23:43.6 Keegan: We had different project options, but the one I chose was sending a message to the aliens. And so pretty much what that included is I just kind of came up with like, "Okay, so here's what I wanna send, here's what I would want aliens to see or whatever." So you could put music in, different images, and I researched the NASA Golden Record and kind of took some things from that, and I made it into a video format where I pretty much just kinda recorded this voice-over and I would have different images and stuff of things I wanted to show the aliens. But then I found myself also going into this different kind of rabbit hole of explaining how the spacecraft would work. And so I just had a lot of fun making a video of what would I send to the aliens and how would I send it to the aliens. And I think I went more in detail than they had asked for, but it was just really fun. And then I shared the video with the advisor and some of the students, and they gave feedback and stuff, and I was able to incorporate a lot of different things I found really interesting, not only the concepts that were listed that I had to include, but also just kind of bringing in other aspects of things that I wanted to include.
0:24:58.4 Angela: Keegan is going to be humble, he's done a lot of awesome projects. He's really good with video editing, so I just have to say Keegan has done some really, really cool projects and just getting to see him incorporate his own interest has been just awesome. On the expert side of things, it's been really great to see. Sorry, I just wanted to throw that in there.
0:25:18.8 CM: That's so nerdy and cool. I love everything about that. That's incredible. The concept of focusing on systems rather than individuals to be as is kind of the whole point. The ability to have these systems in place at Sora has allowed you to flourish as an educator, whereas there are plenty of educators that could do the same exact stuff, but the systems are not set up in a way that allow them to do that. And sometimes that causes us to become cynical or apathetic. You might see someone who you may think is maybe like a "bad teacher" but really they have just... They've been burned out. They aren't really sure where to go next, but if we change the systems, we could potentially unlock that again.
0:25:56.5 Angela: Yeah. And you're right by saying sometimes, Chris, too, because I wanna say I have met some of the most amazing public school educators who really are trying to change the game, I've seen awesome teachers putting into practice project-based learning, and actually, I've seen someone do a variation of the dream vacation, project-based learning, and that's kind of a little bit where I got the idea for it. So it's definitely not all educators, I have met some of the most amazing, outstanding progressive educators in public school systems. But I think what I mean is the system as a whole... You know what I mean? But I think absolutely there is space to incorporate more of this in a traditional school setting.
0:26:45.7 CM: So Sora has this unique grading philosophy and system that blends together traditional standards and more growth-oriented systems. The documentation of student learning is divided into two parts, abilities and concepts. Abilities are reminiscent of 21st century skills or soft skills, like informational writing, presentation skills, looking at historical sources, they're blanket skills that can be used in a variety of settings. Students are expected to complete a certain number of each ability by the time that they exit, either middle or high school, placing their accomplishments into what are called Ability Books. For example, a student might need to complete 10 presentations and place them in their presentation ability book by the end of middle school. Each expedition has abilities tagged to it, so that students know what they can grab from that expedition.
0:27:31.3 CM: Then there's concepts. Concepts are similar to traditional school subjects, which are specific things that students are said to know. So for example, things like elements of the periodic table, math formulas, very fact-based wrote things. There's a list of concepts that students should know by the end of middle or high school, and expeditions are again used to understand these concepts. So our educators did say consistently that their focus on abilities and concepts were entirely on growth. Students are able to re-submit work, they're able to work through things multiple times, they display their knowledge in various different ways, and there's no traditional assessments or mandated standardized testing.
0:28:10.7 CM: What about standardized testing? Is there anything at all or is it just... I know that primarily you have middle school, like right now, is there going to be any concern about SAT, ACT, like national standardized testing?
0:28:22.6 Angela: So that's a great question actually, and that's a question that I think has definitely come up with parents who are interested in Sora schools. We do have opportunities where students can take SAT practice courses, and we do have opportunities for students to practice that. We have a lot of students who end up going through Sora schools like the high schools normally, they'll take the ACT or they'll take the SAT, however, whichever one that they would normally do. And they've had a lot of success with getting into the colleges that they want, and I think the way that Sora kind of sets up their transcript can really help with that because a lot of colleges see that we're doing something really unique here, and maybe it even takes some bravery to try out something new like that. And I think that's something that colleges like to see, but I'm not sure if that answered your question Chris, exactly. But with the SAT, there are definitely opportunities to prepare for that because that's still important if you are wanting to get into a college that still asks for standardized testing like that. But other than that, there really is no standardized testing whatsoever, which as an educator that has just been a huge weight off of my shoulders because I don't feel like I have to make sure the students memorize all of these different parts of the Constitution that they'll forget the day after the test.
0:29:52.1 Angela: Everything is very meaningful and purposeful. So it has been just awesome, not having to deal with standardized tests.
0:30:01.5 CM: I think we put a huge emphasis on depth over breadth, and the idea like if you're hyper-engaged in something and you wanna do it and it's fun for you, you're gonna remember those things and you're gonna apply those to other things. And likely, even though I don't think it's a good measure of academic knowledge, you likely will still do just as well, if not better on standardized tests because you actually remember those things as opposed to just kinda going through the motions, you're probably in the same boat. I remember going through my science classes, I did well on the test, I know nothing, there is no way I could even get close to doing well on those tests again.
0:30:34.2 Angela: And to add onto that, I think also what we're teaching students, we're teaching them deduction skills for example. So a lot of what I feel like the standardized tests are asking the students to do, we might have not gone over that exact content, for example, but we hopefully have taught those skills to make it so that students are able to figure out that type of question if that makes sense. I feel like with standardized tests, a lot of it is also kind of figuring out how to respond to the question, and there's little test tricks, I guess, if that makes sense too. But I think with the skills that we teach the students, I do feel confident that they could go into a standardized test and absolutely do very well. Yeah.
0:31:17.7 CM: Anything else you'd wanna add that you'd want folks to hear more about? Anything we didn't cover?
0:31:23.9 Keegan: So one aspect I like at Sora is that we have a system referred to as low floor, high ceiling, I think. And pretty much what that is, is that you're not given too much of an expectation, most of the time at least. You're not told you have to have this many pages or this many words or this amount of slides or whatever. You're just kind of given a topic and some aspects that you need to cover, and then you can either have the bare minimum or as much as you want. Like, we had one student that... I don't remember what the actual task was, but it was something about space exploration, and he designed a full 34 slide exploration to Mars, describing how NASA could build something to plant a base on Mars. And that system really just ignites the natural desire that we have to learn and allows you to take it to whatever level you want and makes you your own determiner of what you really wanna cover and how much you wanna dive into different topics.
0:32:28.4 Angela: I do feel like there's a misconception that it is lonely and not as social, and even from a teaching standpoint, that has not been the case at all. I feel like a close kinship with a lot of my peers who are also experts or just everyone that I work with. Because we're able to see each other a lot more, we're able to collaborate so much more than in traditional schools, so I have definitely not ever felt disconnected from my peers or lonely or anything like that. And the relationships that I have formed this year are definitely the strongest that I formed out of my entire teaching career, just because I've been given the opportunity to spend that time with the student one on one, and really get to know them, which would have been my dream at a traditional school. And I think that's every teacher's dream to be able to get to know a student super well and get to spend one-on-one time practicing certain skills with them. So that's something that I just absolutely love about Sora. The systems are in place where we can do things like that, learn what the student is all about, what they need specifically.
0:33:36.1 Angela: So I think that's really important. I don't find that it's isolating at all working remotely. In fact, it's the most social job I've ever had. So I just wanted to add that because that was something I was worried about, going from... Well, I guess last year I was online because of COVID, but I always liked being in-person before, it wasn't that. So I was sort of worried about missing that social connection. But even for staff, they have events on Friday, kind of like a Friday happy hour situation where we can just hang out chill, talk about the week and having those experiences, and just our awesome community coordinators are always thinking of fun activities for staff to do as well. It's really fun. It's a great environment to be a part of.
0:34:30.3 CM: And now here's Garrett Smiley, the CEO and co-founder of Sora. Garrett grew up in a military family and attended every type of school, traditional schools, religious schools, schools with uniforms, progressive schools and online schools. Eventually, he ended up at a prep school in Texas that he didn't like so much. And as a coping mechanism, he began schooling himself on how schools could run and what he could do different. He didn't like having to cram before tests or attend lectures despite doing pretty well on standardized tests and getting the grades that he needed to. He much preferred teaching himself through YouTube and other online tools. In college, Garrett majored in Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering, joining a learning community where he founded a non-profit that focused on game-based learning and financial literacy that worked with foster kids. Here he implemented ideas that would eventually become further developed at Sora.
0:35:17.8 Garrett Smiley: A transformative education is possible. Let's just start there, right? There's a sequence of events that one can go through and that kids can go through that radically changes their lives and their future trajectory. Right? So let's just start with that. Education can be deeply impactful. Usually that happens, and I know you said your audience is mostly public school educators, but unfortunately, usually it happens in high budget schools with tons of resources. That doesn't have to be the case in my opinion, I think we can do 80% of the impactful work that's done in those $50,000, $60,000 a year schools in the constraints of the average per people cost in public school education. And for the under, let's call it $15,000 that most independent schools or public schools have access to. So the reason why we believe that is one, progressive principles are what the world needs going forward, and they happily dovetail with the development of technology and the fact we can be a global school that's online and give access to not only the spread of conversations that happen when you're a global school. Right now we're only in the US, but our aspiration is to be global. But also just when you do things like develop your own LMS like we have, and talk about how we can create opportunities for path finding and interventions and all this stuff that's usually very intensive with paperwork in humans, but computers can help us.
0:36:58.5 GS: And we're looking at Google and all these big companies that are now recognizing that also high fidelity work can happen online. So why can't high-fidelity world-class education happen online too and be accessible to students who simply don't have a school within their 10-mile radius that believes in these progressive principles?
0:37:16.0 CM: Sure. Yeah, and it's interesting because your model is both a virtual school, but also one that focuses on progressive pedagogy, which those two things tend to not be paired together. When I think virtual education, I think like a credit recovery school or worse, in some cases. So could you talk a little about the inspiration. Like, when you say progressive, what do you mean?
0:37:41.8 GS: Yeah, and so actually, I usually lean away from the word because everyone has a different opinion about what progressive means. And so I'll just ground in some of the Sora beliefs and you can decide how progressive or non-progressive that is given your paradigm.
0:37:56.5 GS: So I believe that agency is one of the most important things we can instill in a student. I believe that learning should be integrated, should be interdisciplinary, not by per subject bounds. I believe having diverse friend groups and conversations is deeply important to children's development. I believe that kids should be exposed to different content. Not everyone should learn the same things because diversity of thought is what makes innovation happen and what makes the world great.
0:38:28.9 GS: So those are just some of the things we really try to lean into. I don't mean... And this will probably frustrate some of the audience. I don't mean shoes optional. [chuckle] My friend Peter Hutton from Beaver jokes that most people think progressive means shoes optional. That people are... We don't have any standards for ourself or it's inherently easier. I don't mean any of that. I just mean the education project, what we're pushing for... Yes, it should be difficult. It should be quality. It should be ambitious. But simply the design criteria is different than a traditional school.
0:39:07.3 CM: The difference between something like the Dewey Lab school versus the Sudbury Valley School. The difference between really traditional progressive ed, which is more based around like the whole child approach, holistic education, interdisciplinary education, but still has a standardized model for what they want students to do.
0:39:27.3 CM: There's a lot of wiggle room in there, but there is an overall idea. And I totally get that. That's something that I've had many conversations about with colleagues, because we do have a lot of folks underneath the umbrella of Human Restoration Project that are un-schoolers or self-directed educators. And personally I do see that value in everyone having a common mission and vision for what they want to happen. And there being some things that challenge learners. That maybe have them come to terms with some things they might not normally be exposed to. And I think that that's a pendulum that is a constant battle and a constant conversation.
0:40:03.5 GS: Yeah, I think something that's important for us all to have as a starting point. And this is a hotly contested thing in progressive education, but I push against this romantic view of the child that assumes just throwing them into their own levels of self-direction and society and modernity, that they'll come out as this actualized adult. I just don't think that's super realistic. I think that we need to nurture that and help them get to that and have design criteria that's intelligent for a post-industrial economy that we have in much of the world now. But we shouldn't just assume that children in their current states are able to shepherd themselves there.
0:40:48.6 CM: Yes, yeah. It only works in an environment where the students have the proper supports at home and have been raised in an environment where they kind of already have perhaps an inclination for social and societal justice. Or at least understanding a perspective building. Because I don't think most folks that are involved in the progressive education field would be comfortable with saying like, "Hey, kids that grew up in environments, let's say that are racist, should just raise themselves and everything will turn out great."
0:41:16.7 CM: Because we've seen what will happen with the growth of violent extremism amongst young people where they don't have that nurturing voice. They don't have that person there to help guide them. It's interesting because you've basically, from a systems thinking approach, by turning the model on its head and forcing it to be online, you have to look at a lot of these other elements of school, which by default is going to make them more engaging because I can't trap people in a room.
0:41:45.5 CM: I mean, I guess I could force them to be on Zoom, which has happened [chuckle] during remote learning. But if we were going to be human-centered, if you will, or progressive about it, we would not want that to be the model. And I think that when you're alluding to the fact that YouTube is a place that we can learn a lot of very interesting things... I think that's been touted a lot in a lot of innovation circles. It's true, with support.
0:42:10.1 CM: It's like one of those things where we need to mirror the model of understanding like, look at all of these great tech platforms that exist and things that we can learn about. How can we change the system of education so that teachers can support that learning. And based off the conversations I had with Angela and Keegan, the way that that's been a flipped through project-based learning is fascinating. And it's obvious that folks have the time and the dedication and the interest to explore things that they're interested in while simultaneously developing the whole child.
0:42:43.5 GS: Absolutely, yeah. I love that framing that... I wanna say, "Get it out there right now." And I think most people would agree with me, we just don't talk about it enough. That education is not a content problem. Great curriculum helps so, so much, especially interdisciplinary curriculum, integrated curriculum, very important from my perspective, but that is not the problem.
0:43:05.2 GS: We have the internet. High quality content is ubiquitous. "Genius" quote unquote, or kids who are on fire about solving social issues, whatever, is not ubiquitous. So clearly it's not a content problem. We've solved that... We've isolated that variable. So what is education? We should make sure that teachers have the time and space to do things that humans... Since education is fundamentally a human process... Humans are good at. And the rest computers can take care of. Content, YouTube videos, lectures, not that they don't have a place, it's just silly that we are spending all of our time on those things and not on the truly effective relationship support unblocking that teachers are good at, they just have no time to do.
0:43:52.0 CM: The work is especially interesting from a remote standpoint, just like it is for remote work, because you can attract teachers and students from anywhere to go to your school. And I'm imagining because it's online, there's some pedagogical shifts that are happening because you have to be that way in a remote environment.
0:44:09.6 CM: For example, it's difficult to know what students are doing. You can't just track what they're doing. Certainly you could do surveillance type stuff, but that's not what you're doing. But remote is very different, having students access this in this way. Do you think that this model is something that's going to be spread or is it something that is only for a certain type of student?
0:44:24.0 GS: I think it could be for everyone. So like remote work could theoretically be for everyone. It requires a certain executive functioning skills. A certain... Some people thrive in an in-person environment because it provides more structure. It provides more oversight. It provides all these things. And for some people early in their career. Or just kids to go back, the initial... Some of the kids themselves do require more of that... A watchful eye, honestly.
0:45:07.1 GS: And so I think remote school could certainly be the solution to most kids' schooling needs, but it does require a certain floor, a certain competency, a certain amount of self-regulation. And so I think many people saw this in COVID as well. But I think... So to your discipline question, it just requires a different perspective on what discipline means.
0:45:33.2 GS: So you just have to... An assumption at the heart of our curriculum and the schooling experience itself is that you're competing with Twitter. You're competing with whatever on the other tab. And you need to be able to create an engaging environment. And you need to... You cannot just assume that we're gonna lock kids in a chair, watch them so that they don't get on their phone.
0:46:01.9 GS: And I would argue that never really works anyway. The kids' minds are elsewhere. I know mine certainly was in school. I was thinking about literally everything but what was going on inside the class, even though my eyes were directed forward. But in a remote school, kids have access to all the tabs, so you better be engaging them. You better use frequent breakout rooms, you better do experiments, labs, jigsaw sessions, debates. You better be doing these active learning things or you're wasting everyone's time.
0:46:35.2 GS: And plus, just the output of school. Not only is this true in a remote environment where like proctoring tests and everything get a little more difficult. I'm sure we're all aware of the videos and just the general memes kids were sharing during COVID about how easy it was to cheat, 'cause literally every student was. But they were cheating beforehand as well, but in COVID it was... Ubiquitous is even an understatement.
0:47:05.5 GS: And plus, we're going into this next evolution of GPT-3. We're creating these technologies. And for those who are unfamiliar, computers are now able to have natural discourse with people. And you can copy and paste a prompt, like a short form response from any of yesteryear's homework assignments, and the computer will answer and get around plagiarism detection. So we have to evolve, maybe eventually. [laughter]
0:47:33.8 GS: But I just think it's really important for teachers to recognize that the disciplinary, the structural violence of schools that worked quote unquote maybe in the past century are breaking down in front of our very eyes. So whether it's a remote school or not, we're gonna have to rethink what proving competency mastery means in school for the 21st century.
0:47:55.4 CM: Yeah, that... What you just said really resonates with me. It makes me think of... And listeners to this podcast will probably hear me talking about this all the time. But a study by Dr. Susan Engel. She is a child developmental psychologist. She had a group of... I believe, first year teachers, teachers in training, going through the program.
0:48:13.3 CM: And she had them go off to different schools. And she said, "Hey, I want you to write down if students are engaged or not in all of these different classrooms." So the teachers went class to class. They were documenting what students were doing and recognizing engaged versus not engaged behavior. And they got back into the class with Dr. Engel, and they said, "Hey, here are all the things that we saw for engagement."
0:48:35.3 CM: We saw kids sitting up straight, they were looking at the teacher, they were paying attention, they were quiet. And at the end of this Susan Engel was like, "Hey, that's not engagement actually. What you're describing is compliance." Those are all things that look like perhaps someone's paying attention, but frankly, they might just be afraid of getting in trouble or they might just be looking like they're paying attention.
0:48:58.7 CM: To be engaged is to ask questions or take things on on your own, or maybe you wanna go out and... I don't know, start a project over what you learned. If you're going up to the teacher after class and wanting to figure out more about something. It's a lot more in depth and involved. And a lot more difficult to design for than compliance.
0:49:16.4 GS: I think just compliance-based education is doomed, whether you want to engage in learning a more traditional way or a more progressive way or whatever. And I think obviously, progressive education is ahead of the curve on this transition. But you cannot suppose like you're saying that learning outcomes are correlated with compliance anymore. It's just... Not only is it absurd from a pedagogical perspective and what's happened in the classroom, and a learning perspective, it's also just not what society is demanding.
0:49:49.3 GS: We're not an industrial economy. We're a post-industrial, we're a service economy, an entrepreneur economy. And the design criteria of compliance, which drove much of the last century or two of schooling is just hilariously out of date. And then when you layer on technology onto it it's unbelievably easy to bypass and be undetected.
0:50:11.5 CM: Yeah. What you're describing it reminds me a lot of the same debate that's been occurring in schools now, I guess, for maybe one or two decades involving Wikipedia. The idea of cheating versus a tool. I've always been a huge proponent of using Wikipedia. It's one of the most fact based peer-reviewed topics that you could possibly come across on the internet. Certainly there are a few problematic things in terms of the politics that appear on there and people trying to edit like their spin.
0:50:37.9 CM: But not really that much different than some of the things you might come across on any website, on the internet or any research study. And Wikipedia is very well mandated. Despite that, it's still not common for a professor or for a teacher to say, "Hey, you're allowed to cite Wikipedia," because of the ever flowing changing nature of it. That said, there's a similarity there to AI writing. It's a tool. Obviously, it's not going to probably replace creative writing at any time soon, but it can be a tool that's utilized to help you come up with prompts or figure out things that you might wanna write about, or even just get you started.
0:51:12.4 CM: In the same exact way that any tool is being used. You have to have critical thinking skills. And I think this exemplifies the concept of the goal is not to reinvent ways to get people to do the traditional metrics of learning. The goal is to reinvent the actual learning itself. We need to you try to dive away from the idea of, write a five paragraph essay about this, and move more towards... Well, what's an authentic project that's going to involve you writing where you may write five paragraphs, you might write less, or you might even write more.
0:51:45.6 CM: That is going to be a much different task, and it's not going to require just the concept of, "Can I write in five paragraphs," and then that be the end of it.
0:51:54.0 GS: I will actually say for the short-term, there are ways to adapt to make your test or your assessment less, quote unquote "cheatable", or at least to make kids demonstrate their competency. And I think real-world product, just having multiple modalities or having a debate, an oral defense combined with this, combined with a real world project. There are certainly ways for kids to demonstrate their competency, even with things like these AIs. Which by the way, are not the future of AIs. It's literally there. I could pull up the other tab and ask, "Hey write a script about progressive education." I can use this podcast and read it to you verbatim.
0:52:34.2 GS: It won't be super strong. But anyway, these tools exist. So there are ways for our assessment to evolve, but I think eventually there won't be. And let's just get at the heart of the issue instead of taking away phones, how do you create motivated learners, you connect their learning with their purpose. You have to respect kids.
0:52:55.5 GS: I can't remember if we spoke about this last time, but you have to respect kids enough to have conversations about the world and their budding world views and why what they're doing connects with the learning. Because the cliche... But I do believe it's true, is you're only cheating yourself. Like the classic thing.
0:53:13.7 GS: Sure, us adults realize that. And a lot of students that just doesn't connect. Because I'm cheating myself to what ends. I don't value what you value. I don't value what you're asking me to do, because we've never had the conversation about why it's important. Or perhaps schools have to get comfortable with the fact, kids do not value those things, and that's okay.
0:53:32.9 GS: So where's the line between the things kids have to do. Where are we gonna allow flexibility. These are really important conversations for us to have. But I think at the heart of it is just recognizing that we need to design our schools around creating motivated learners which is all about having kids develop a worldview and then connect their actions to that worldview.
0:54:03.6 CM: Again, I wanna thank Sora for appearing on our podcast. As you've heard, there's a lot of intriguing things going on in this space. We recognize that Sora, is a tuition-based program. It's not a public school. And we simultaneously believe that we need to have and support public schools, where you have thriving public schools, while also learning from private programs like this.
0:54:22.5 CM: In a perfect world, public schools will be able to emulate these ideas and implement them into their own virtual programs, then innovate and try out new things. However, it's a flawed system. It's difficult for public school system to do this. It takes a lot of risk. Therefore to me, schools like Sora help show us what's possible. Thank you again for listening. If you have an idea for what school we should cover next, visit humanrestorationproject.org and let us know.