What I Discovered from our Learning Pod Experiment

Illustration by Holly White from Change Here Now, by Adam Brock

A week ago our learning pod experiment went live.

We dove in to observe and uncover what systems and structures work and what our blind spots may be. I previously taught  in Denver Public Schools for twelve years, so it was easy to find a few families who would be willing to give it a try in order to learn together. It turned out to be a huge success that filled multiple needs: parents got a few hours of child care as well as thought partners about a possible vision for their child’s learning journey this fall. Students got to see and talk to other children from their school for the first time since March. They said they loved being a part of the experiment because they really missed other kids and they needed connection. I realized that students had been through the gambit of emotions just like I had, and they needed time to process, to hope, and to have a voice in their plans for the fall. This experiment helped each of us feel more comfortable and resilient because we had a vision of the future that felt possible.

If you are working on creating a neighborhood pod or other educational response, a pod test day is a great way to identify your needs and blind spots.

Here’s What I Did to Run my Test:

  • Invited families (I started with folks I knew, not necessarily the pod that may emerge.)
  • Set up a safety plan & communicated it to families
  • Deep cleaned my house & set up outdoor and indoor spaces
  • Checked in one-on-one with families to see what their exposure had been like in the last 14 days to ensure we all knew of each other’s level of risk. (COVID Care by Dr. Evelin Dacker is a great document to guide you in this tricky communication process) 
  • Checked in with the people in my own family to help them understand the exposure risks.
  • Created a plan for the day that would help me understand the challenges and potential of online learning in my space.
  • Invited lots of (kind, helpful, and specific) feedback from people all around me.
  • We will be putting together a folder of the tools we’ve created to share so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
  • Keep an eye out for that tool kit, being created by a group of individuals working for a more equitable, collaborative, resilient response.

Here’s What I Learned:

Showing up for Each Other Makes us Feel More Resilient:

When I put my invite out there, I immediately began getting feedback (mostly positive)! I immediately began to see that when I connect to my network, I have a root system that goes deep and taps in to more resources than I could have dreamed and would have been afraid to ask for. Most of all, I had the feeling that we CAN rise to this occasion. And during COVID time, that’s way more valuable than gold! Now I have to figure out an efficient way to use or redistribute all those yields! Take this 5 minute survey if you want help or can offer help to the Learning Pod project, and watch our root system grow even stronger.

 

Begin Building Community and Trust:

I started my pod experiment small on purpose, with a few families I knew and trusted. This helped because, let’s be honest, we were probably going to be having some vulnerable conversations. And I was hoping they wouldn’t sue me if one of their kids tripped over my hose walking up my front steps. (Yes I did contact my insurance. More on that later). We did have those vulnerable conversations. And having them made our trust grow and helped us practice for other occasions where we may not feel as safe. Going slow and small helps us fail incrementally, so we can design better, with a more forgiving safety net.

 

Kids are Really Resourceful:

My first test pod day reminded me that kids are really smart and resourceful. They know so much about their best learning styles, their struggles and challenges. They know how it feels to be anxious about a first day of school in non-COVID time, and they feel extra-anxious about what school will be like for them this fall. My test students were enthusiastic to help come up with ideas for pod agreements, jobs, and brain breaks. I remembered that each year in the classroom, I need the energy of the students to create my classroom culture.  How empowering it was for them to lay the ground rules for emotional and physical safety in their Pod! We all feel safe when we are heard and valued. We all feel more like we belong when others make space for our voices to be heard and our contributions to matter.

 

Parents are Really Resourceful:

Parents are REALLY smart and resourceful. They have been collecting data and thinking about safety measures for a LONG time. The parents I invited into my experiment immediately began sharing links to waivers, websites, safety plans, and other communications they had received from their doctors, schools, and other public institutions. The up side of collaboration: other institutions have lawyers who they already consulted and paid for their time. Like my favorite art teacher has written on her classroom wall: “Steal like an artist.” It’s the title of a book by Austin Kleon. (AKA. Open source and innovate.) For one, It’s better than hoarding your ideas because it elevates us all together instead of just the few who have more access. Talk to others about what they’ve tried and experienced. Which brings us to Kleon’s next book: Show Your Work!  Your network is your data collection mechanism and will extend your ability to “observe” through collective observations. Practicing COVID safety conversations will also give you a great way to gauge what it will be like to exchange  awkwardly personal information on the regular. Embrace the Awkward. It builds trust. Great segue to the next lesson from the day:

 

Communication:

One on one is best for safety and privacy. Pick up the phone and talk to each other. Tone of voice is important. We can’t just be clicking “yes” to the questions on a COVID disclosure questionnaire the first time around without reading the words because we’re busy. We need to hear and see each other and remember that with each child and parent interaction comes an invisible network of cousins and neighbors and grandparents and health care professionals and essential workers tied to each child. That makes those disclosure and safety conversations even more important to get right. Tone of voice and eye contact conveys that so much better than a text or email. If we are building something that matters and that will last a little while, let’s lay a foundation of trust.

Begin talking about values and priorities: (Yes, this IS an evolving conversation)

Check in with the folks you love in your “container.” When I say your “container,” I mean the people you see on a regular basis without social distancing precautions- or who are likely to be affected by your choices because distancing doesn’t work ALL the time.  They are the people you live with, share a work space with, etc.  How do they feel about your pod? What are your family priorities? How might they change in the next few months? If having your child connected to an adult teacher, mentor, or group of children is a priority and infection rates continue to rise, how might you prioritize your pod over other risks you are currently taking? Will you ask folks in your pod to do the same? Choose the exposure level that makes the people in your container feel comfortable on the the choices – exposure continuum.

Internet safety & Technology:

One thing that quickly became clear was that I would need a plan to manage internet safety. A school often has a really good firewall that keeps students from playing all over the dark web while a teacher is meeting with another child. Start thinking about a plan. Try 3-6 children logging in and doing some test activities. Will your internet support that amount of traffic? Maybe not if you’re all watching YouTube at once. Who will be your tech support person? Most schools can check out technology to students, and parents may have already navigated that process. If your pod is working with a school, figure out who to call for tech support. One school I contacted had a separate tech support email set up during COVID and a whole plan to support families with on-line school. They even helped a family instal internet at home. Your school tech person is a great resource to know and reach out to.

Communicate with the kids’ schools and teachers:

According a little survey we put together, most folks will be facilitating a pod for children enrolled in a school. Once you get as much information as you can from the parents, introduce yourself to the school as a pod leader and get the gist of their plan. Will they be doing school online or hybrid? How can you support the school so they are communicating with just one pod leader instead of five individual families? Understand the schedule for the different children and their classes. Ask questions about the flow of the day, the support structures they’ll have, etc. Most of all, think about how to partner with the school. Each school will be different.

Safety Plan:

We put together a safety plan and then sent it out to parents before the pod experiment began. Students added to the plan on our first morning meeting together. We got out a tape measure and figured out exactly what 6 feet looked and felt like. We talked about when to wear masks and when it’s okay not to have them on (outdoors, > 6 ft.). We set a timer to stop and clean at intervals, and students excitedly signed up for different areas to clean. We talked about ventilation and open doors and windows. We discussed how to give gentle reminders to each other and how to ask for consent to touch someone’s stuff or share space. Talking about the safety plan was an emotional release for the students. It gave them a level of control that was empowering.

 

How will you share?

Thinking about school supplies and daily needs like water bottles, sunscreen, snacks and lunches immediately made me wonder, what will students provide and keep for themselves and what will we share? What are the equity issues involved in personal property versus shared? This gets even more complicated than it already was in my classroom, where all materials were shared.  I’m already imagining an uncomfortable status competition of cute Hello Kitty erasers. Will your pod have a shared snack pantry that everyone contributes to? If the need is there, can you connect families to food resources? Will students in your pod need to access free and reduced lunch from a list of schools on this map  that are handing them out? Who will go get those lunches and bring them to your pod?  Could a parent deliver the lunches as an exchange for their child’s participation in the pod? What ways can resources be shared and traded while still maintaining safety? Local organizations like McBride Impact in Montbello can provide children with a backpack of school supplies.Once you figure out the needs of your pod and how to fill them, then ask: and how can we share- not just with each other, but also with other pods?

 

Next Steps:

After the students left and we celebrated our small success, I was left with a list of next steps: revise our disclosure questionnaire, find a good waiver of liability, contact my insurance company, determine what educational platform to use and what tools I’ll need to structure the day well, what’s our back up plan when someone develops symptoms? And of course, the question so many folks have shared: what is the fee structure that ensures access and equity. We’ve got a consortium of individuals from the Front Range pulling together resources to answer those questions.  As we continue to develop this tool kit, we’ll share it with you. If you know of any, please send them along so we can share them with others.

Experiment & Iterate:

I called our experimental pod the Butterfly Rainbow Pod because I found a banner in my basement that my mother had sewn and used to hang in her classroom more than fifty years ago. It fits because we are in an ugly, messy chrysalis stage of recreation right now. This is what Joanna Macy would call “the great unraveling.”  We don’t exactly know what we will look like when we emerge, but we will emerge stronger. We hope our rainbow of differences will be the source of our beauty. Our little experiment reminded me of summer camps and the way creating a micro-culture can make us excited to belong. I’m not sure if the children in my pod will let me keep the name because it’s pretty cheesy. I’ll let you know what they decide.

We all feel safe when we are heard and valued.

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