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Community Lab students help rethink education

If Chloe Root and Sarvasrika Singh could change how schools work, they’d start with the teachers.

The two juniors at Community Lab School want their teachers to have time to plan engaging lessons and the support needed to provide students with more one-on-one assistance, make lessons interesting and bring in different elements.

“I appreciate the teachers who do that, but I do realize that they’re doing this out of their own free time,” Singh said.

Root wants to see more engagement in any class.

“It shouldn’t be a rare occasion that something’s fun,” Root said. “People say college is the best four years of your life, and I think we need that sooner.”

The two students shared their thoughts on their public school experience with Howard Blumenthal, a television and media producer who created the PBS series “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”

Blumenthal has turned his attention to rethinking education for the 21st century and visited the school last week.

Blumenthal is partnering with the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development on the 21st Century Learning Project. The recently-launched effort grew from a manuscript he wrote during the pandemic.

The university’s education school dean, Bob Pianta, is the project’s other founder.

“I have no agenda aside from how do we just bring this into the 21st century and make it a joyful experience,” Blumenthal said.

The group wants to create a framework for learning driven by students’ feedback along with insights about a variety of issues, including student identity, agency, future-mindedness, and well-being.

Blumenthal’s stop at the Community Lab School was the start of his research of students attending school from 2025 to 2040. The school is one of the project’s first partners.

The Community Lab School, a charter school in the Albemarle school division, serves students from sixth through 12th grade. The school, which has about 200 students, is focused on student-centered and project-based learning.

As its name implies, the school is a lab for the division where administrators test out different ideas such as new grading practices before rolling them out to other schools.

Blumenthal said the lab school is already doing many of the things he’s hoping to include in the framework.

“I’m not talking about fantasy here,” he said. “This is actually happening. It makes sense to do what I’ve been thinking we ought to be doing.”

In group sessions and one-on-one interviews, Blumenthal asked students about how they learn and what they need to learn best, among other questions. His work is premised in large part on the notion that students are the experts on their own learning.

“Adults should not be dictating; they should be guiding and helping,” he said. “It’s not as if students don’t know what direction they want to go and how to get there, but they need help, and our job is to help them.”

Josh Flaherty, a lead teacher at the lab school, said the project has short-term and long-term benefits. He hopes the project will provide more specifics about how to go about reinventing education.

But until then, Blumenthal’s visit got students thinking about their own learning, which is something the lab school asks of students as well.

“I think our students are proud of what they’ve done and the fact that they’re doing things differently,” he said. “And they get to go and talk to somebody about that. I think they really enjoy getting to share and I think when students are put in a position to articulate that, it helps them to think it out as well.”

Root and Singh said they’re hopeful that the in-person conversations will actually lead to change as opposed to the numerous surveys they’ve taken over the years.

“We take so many surveys, but we never feel like they’re changing anything,” Root said.

Both said they wanted to see a more individualized approach to education and that relationships with teachers are essential. They acknowledged the small class sizes at the lab school help form stronger bonds with teachers, who are more like family to them.

“We both know what we want education to be as a younger generation but that’s sometimes hard to communicate to other generations that really have the authority,” Root said.


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