100 Days of Conversations: Amplifying Communities to Reimagine Education

Chris McNutt
May 14, 2021
In our pilot, we explored a reimagination of this project as a result of the pandemic, while simultaneously recognizing that the American education system was already in need of change.

This piece was originally posted on Cortico's Medium.

The pandemic was a wake-up call for many Americans to recognize the injustices of our society, as so many problems were highlighted by an inadequate response and exacerbated inequity. Our schools, which have historically been underfunded, especially in ignored communities, faced extraordinary pressure to reach all young people.

Despite decades of education reformers seeking to reimagine the system, there has not been substantial progress. In fact, accountability measures instituted by state and federal governments have often doubled down on traditional teaching methods, seeking to compete with other countries for arbitrary scores.

Through all this, and especially in the pandemic, educators have tried their best to meet the needs of their students. They try to work the best they can within the system to create resources that will engage young people. However, there aren’t many opportunities for deep, prolonged conversations about school with students themselves. How do we know what educators and students want within their schools? How do we connect policymakers and district heads with teachers and young people? In our pilot, we explored a reimagination of this project as a result of the pandemic, while simultaneously recognizing that the American education system was already in need of change.

100 Days of Conversations aims to amplify the voices of young people, educators, and community members to better inform the entire community toward change. Instead of making broad ranging statements about what students “need”, our mission is to supply policymakers, nonprofits, and schools with substantial data on what people actually think about school. What matters? What doesn’t matter? What’s good? What could be improved?

This is a collaborative effort to build a national infrastructure and process for communities to listen to each other, taking the time to contemplate big, beautiful questions about reimagining school. Often, our discussions about school begin with many assumptions. Our goal is to provide a space to think starting from zero: recognizing that school is a powerful force in many people’s lives, while simultaneously understanding that there are many flaws in the schooling process. What would it look like to reimagine school from square one?

By collecting 100 conversations in our pilot across a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds, we’ve assessed:

For you, ideally, what role would school play in creating a good life and/or thriving community?

What was important about or in school before, but you never really realized how important until this year?

Knowing what you know now, is there anything you hope will be different about school moving forward?

What does equity in education look like to you? (equity means fair and everyone has what they need) Is your school equitable? Is our system?

When you think about your school, whose voices aren’t heard; or, whose perspectives aren’t respected?

Through this meaning-making process, we hope to purposefully recognize the importance of youth voice in national conversations, allowing all parties to see why it is paramount we include student voice in actual dialogue. These conversations allow for a deep, analytical understanding that goes beyond typical one-and-done surveys that tend to pigeonhole someone’s responses.

Image credit: Léa Henaux

(Hear Ellie talking about grades; Cole talk about democratic schooling; Yusur on paced curriculum.)

To analyze all of these conversations, we’ve co-developed a process with Cortico/Local Voices Network to synthesize hundreds of voices at once. We’ve reached out and partnered with youth organizations, nonprofits, schools, educators, and community members across the country who each have gathered small, diverse online discussion groups. After having an hour or two honest conversation about the future of school, the audio is uploaded to LVN, which is transcribed and dissected. Most importantly to the partnership, participants are able to login to LVN and highlight the most important pieces to them. We wanted to really emphasize and democratize the meaning-making process, one co-owned by those who participated.

So far, we’ve identified powerful narratives that showcase schools as communities, the importance of equity in education, and the beneficial (and harmful) practices of teachers and schools. Young people and educators alike have been quick to forecast the need for a reimagination of the education system, and have placed a significant importance on relationships, kind practices, and social justice.

Without Local Voices Network, it would be near impossible to quickly analyze. By having an easy-to-read transcript that showcases key topics, that allows for easy highlighting and sharing, and gives the ability to tag; we have a much easier way to synthesize what’s going on. And as mentioned before, the participants being able to participate in this process is key to the meaning-making process.

Image credit: Léa Henaux

By conducting wide-scale discussions like these, we can collectively build a better future for schools everywhere. The fact of the matter is that students, educators, and community members recognize the need for change, but not enough voices are being heard. Without these voices, those in power will continually make decisions that are usually with best intentions, but lack perspective. Equity is often at the margins, and we need to develop structures that build a communications infrastructure to hear from all voices and perspectives. As we expand 100 Days of Conversations to a state-by-state level, we hope to partner with youth organizations to pressure districts and policymakers to listen to constituents, host conversations, and change systems based on collective analysis.

Out of this work, we will promote policy briefs, research, advocacy work, art, and more. Using qualitative and quantitative data, stories, experiences, and trends formulated by us and all participants, we will create a narrative that demonstrates the need for reimagining education. This data will be invaluable for educators, schools, communities, districts, policymakers, organizations, and foundations. We’ve had almost a hundred conversations with more than 500 voices and consistently have heard a call for a change. As we democratically have students, educators, and community members reimagine together, we will build the necessary foundation to fundamentally change the education system.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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