One response to the Covid crisis? A Pop Up School

July 27, 2020 |

By Courtney Dickinson 

“It is Lord of the Flies, over here. I have a job, and I am not an educator.”

“The assignments being sent by school do not engage my child. They don’t fit him, and they are not interesting.”

More than a month into remote schooling, parents were expressing frustration and fear. Their primary concerns radiated around their kids’ need for connection with other students, and a general malaise and lack of engagement. 

In Arlington, a parent reached out to Acera to see if the school’s start-up mentality and adaptive mindset could be applied, right now, to create a new remote schooling opportunity for kids not currently enrolled at Acera.  

Inspired by this need, and the concern articulated by more than 40 public school parents, Acera launched a Pop Up School on Monday April 27, open to all students in grades 6-10. In a matter of days, seven parent information sessions engaged more than 50 parents, during which additional needs and worries emerged.  A survey of parents and students in our Pop Up pilot program revealed that kids were happy, engaged, and motivated to learn. Based on this feedback, Pop Up School will return for the 2020-21 school year, open to kids everywhere in grades 4-10.

Pop Up School is formatted into two parts.  Classrooms are anchored by daily, synchronous Zoom video discussions focused on interdisciplinary ideas and real world needs, with a focus on developing students’ capacities in critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and initiative. These daily meet-ups each morning create a norm of connection with a group of peers, and an opportunity to talk about things that matter to the students. Perhaps most importantly, they are a reason for kids to get out of bed

After a 90-minute morning meeting to discuss interdisciplinary topics, assignments, and projects, a daily schedule unfolds. It is a mix of individual work time (with one-on-one teacher appointments for custom coaching on writing and projects) as well as set times for online math tutorials, exercise, and video chatting for students to connect, socialize, and play games together. For all students, there is an expectation for posting short term assignments and longer term creative projects up onto “Padlet” an interface that allows students to see – and comment on – each others’ work.   

The second part of Pop Up School is a suite of afternoon electives! A wide array of “Pop Up” MS & HS Electives which have been crafted to respond to students’ needs and parents hopes. They are open to anyone, regardless of Pop Up School enrollment. 

One example is Hands-on Biology Lab: Micro to Macro, which will include kits to enable students to do microbiome work in their kitchen. This elective reflects one of the best-in-class hands-on science lab units Acera has pilot tested in prior years inside its school. Other Pop Up electives include Philosophy Salon (taught by a philosophy major), Principles of Photography (taught by a professional photographer in Oregon), Wearable Electronic Art (taught by an educator currently living the UK), and Build Your Own Arcade Games, a woodshop style elective in which kids envision, design, and build a game that can be played. 

The mission of Pop Up School is multifaceted. Connection to other people, real relationships with teachers, and engagement in things that matter are all pre-existing conditions in order for academic learning and growth to happen. We can meet students’ needs in creative ways in spite of Covid if we cast aside assumptions and embrace these challenges as a way to re-invent what is possible in education. We can both serve kids who are home alone and reactivate their spirit and their imaginations, while concurrently creating new jobs for incredible specialists and teachers.  

After only one week of Pop Up School, parents already see a difference in their kids. “Our daughter had an energy and focus she has not had in weeks,” wrote one parent. “Pop Up School is really perking her up and restoring her motivation,” said another.  A grade 6 student commented, “I am thinking creatively in new ways because of the way the teacher prompts me, and I am doing assignments with approaches I would not have imagined!  I really like that I can learn what I am interested in without a ceiling!”  

Conventional wisdom tells us that remote learning will be abysmal. But when it is well-designed and led by teachers who focus on facilitating students’ dialogue and growth in thinking, students engage, discover what they are capable of and remote learning can be highly successful.