Reimagining School – What should it look like and who is it for?

Cornelius Minor and Kass Minor help #AMLE22 attendees find their bottom lines as educators

Cornelius and Kass Minor believe that kids don’t just learn in school. They become. It’s an attitude reflective of what we know about middle grades best practice, making them the perfect keynoters for #AMLE22 and our return to in-person conference. We had the opportunity to sit down with Cornelius and Kass to talk about their vision for reimagined schooling.

What should school look like?

“Reimagine.” It’s a term you hear thrown around in the world of education. We heard it increasingly as COVID emerged as a major disruptor to schools from the range of stakeholders, including politicians, educators, and parents. But when it comes down to it, what are we really talking about? Cornelius and Kass made it clear from the outset – reimagining school is hard work. “If you say reimagination,” cautions Cornelius, “you have to be ready for the systemic change that will be required to bring it into existence.”

The duo sees plenty of opportunity for systemic change that can benefit kids. A big piece of the puzzle is access. Cornelius explains, “we say things like ‘in middle school we believe in supporting all kids,’ but then we construct realities that don’t support kids who are visual learners, or children who need socialization to master a concept, or those who might benefit from sketching an idea as opposed to writing it.Many of the challenges that we face in middle school are further complicated by how the society around us reaches into our classrooms. We cannot separate our work from the impact of gender, class, race, and language. Nor should we. We are not preparing children to enter a complicated world. They already live in one.

He thinks about institutional barriers as those practices that limit or cut off completely opportunity for children. And it’s not just about overarching school policy but also practices at the classroom level. Cornelius recalls working with a teacher who insisted that all students complete an oral presentation assignment in the same way – the same way it’d been done in the school for the past twenty years. A student who had recently immigrated from Honduras and learned English on his own over Zoom the year before requested to pre-record the presentation to ensure he got the linguistics correct. He was refused the request.  “I think about all of the times teachers demand that a thing be written, so we’re leaving out opportunity for the kids that need to build a model or to speak,” he explains, “I think about all of the times we demand a thing be copied from the board, but we leave out the kids who need to construct meaning from interpretation.”

How do we begin to deconstruct barriers?

In the face of such institutional barriers, often compounded by district or state level initiatives, where can educators start to reimagine their school spaces? Kass recommends first finding your bottom line. “We talk a lot about what we value in schools,” she says, “Peel back those values and highlight what is your bottom line. There’s a lot going on in schools, so it’s about naming your priority. Our priority is that we want to maintain a high spirit in schools-for both kids and adults.” She describes her reimagined school space as one where all stakeholders feel a sense of joy and curiosity. It’s a space reflective of our collective humanity, she explains.

When it comes to deconstructing access barriers, Cornelius and Kass think about it in three containers: social, physical, and intellectual. How are we thinking about kids’ access to making friendships? How are we creating physical spaces that are conductive to the way tweens learn (i.e. – ditch the hard blue chair!)? And how are we empowering educators with the racial and emotional literacy they need to construct a curriculum that feels relevant to kids?

Returning to the example of the inflexible teacher, Cornelius asked them to name their bottom line, “Is it that the student demonstrate learning (which they clearly did)? Is your bottom line that they understand the concept? Or is your bottom line that he complete the assignment exactly as it’s been done the past two decades?” It’s indicative of the inverse relationship we see between the amount of time kids spend in school and their creativity, added Kass. “There’s a big discrepancy between the needs of kids and how schools are designed. Often, we as teachers, educators, the entire school system are stuck in the way things were always done instead of thinking about how we can reimagine school to recenter on the children they’re supposed to exist for.”

What is middle school now?

Unfortunately, too many educators feel disempowered due to factors in the school or community beyond their control. Cornelius and Kass emphasized that what we can control is what happens in the classroom spaces we share and co-construct with students. We can get good at seeing kids. This is assessment. We can get good at considering what we see. This is the kind of thinking that forms the backbone of any responsive approach. And we can get good at making the small, consistent, and necessary adjustments to our practice that centers children and amplifies learning. This is what is means to reimagine school.