Post-COVID-19: Will Students Return to Normal or Be Leaders in Educational Change?

By Esther Soliman, CTE and Linked Learning Administrator, Los Angeles Unified School District

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard a repeated refrain centered on returning back to “normal” or the “new normal.” Normal means “confirming to the standard or the common type.” Rather than dusting off old refrains, we need deep changes in Post COVID-19, and that means we need to provide a studio for students to create their own songs, find their own voices—where they can construct, express, collaborate, revise, reflect, and demonstrate their skills, knowledge, talents, and attributes in thoughtful and meaningful mediums. 

The first few weeks of working at home consisted of a flurry of assembling and sharing resources for teachers, offering professional development for “distant” teaching and learning, popping in and out of Zoom calls, and endless emails. Major projects were pushed to the background as more immediate needs surfaced for our Los Angeles Unified School District teachers and students.  After the initial rush of work during COVID-19, our Career Technical Education-Linked Learning office team resurfaced one of our team’s projects—instituting electronic portfolios for all students. Just before the Stay at Home order, our leadership team had devoted several months reviewing different portfolios. We chose Portfolium and purchased licenses for all of our Linked Learning pathway students. 

Documenting Work Ready Skills 

Linked Learning integrates core courses with career pathway classes, along with an aligned continuum of work-based learning experiences that provide relevancy and authentic learning. Our Linked Learning pathways also provide great opportunities for students to learn career-ready skills and explore a specific career pathway. Students will upload into their portfolio artifacts such as projects, presentations, and certifications that demonstrate their industry knowledge and skills. We also want all students to have work ready skills artifacts that include a completed job application, resume, cover letter, financial literacy certification, and a mock interview. To assess these skills, and ensure equity, our office has a team of people who have had and will continue to have calibration training, so they can review these artifacts, conduct the mock interviews, and award a “Work Ready” badge when students successfully complete all five elements. (The badge was designed by a student in one of our Video Production classes!) The Work Ready badge will be added to the portfolio as well as the actual artifacts. 

As Katy, a student who participated in a pilot program for the portfolio, stated, “With this portfolio, I learned the steps needed to present myself to get a job and I now understand how prepared I need to be to apply for a job.” 

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Demonstrating Deeper Learning 

Portfolium will also provide a platform for students in Linked Learning pathways to demonstrate a deeper understanding of subject matter through interdisciplinary work, centered on their career pathway theme. Students in a Biotech pathway, for instance, may be studying bacteria and viruses while reading, discussing, and writing responses to articles such as, “Drug Companies Will Make a Killing From Coronavirus.” They may be researching the history of and the effect of pandemic viruses on various communities. They also could be participating as Citizen Scientists, as one of our Linked Learning pathway students are doing. Students are currently  working with researchers, as “researchers are calling on citizen scientists to play a free online game called Foldit, in which they help design and identify proteins that may be able to bind to and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that it uses to invade host cells. The scientists hope that players’ creations will yield insights that will allow them to create an effective antiviral therapy for COVID-19.” (Emma Yasinski, “Scientists Use Online Games to Research COVID-19 Treatments,”The Scientist, March 9, 2020.)  

Fulfilling the Graduate Profile: College and Career Readiness 

In addition to Work Ready elements, students will also select artifacts that demonstrate their critical thinking and creative voices, work that indicates proficiency or mastery of the district’s Graduate Profile and their readiness for college and career. One expectation in our Graduate Profile is for students to demonstrate adaptability. How poignant this moment in history, where we, an entire global population, are being asked to be adaptable. Our teachers, schools, and districts also need to be adaptable, but with a greater vision in mind. Let’s hope we don’t expend energy to go back to “normal,” but instead find positive ways to adapt—that we provide time and space for our students to express their concerns about all these changes, encourage opportunities for them to contribute to how we can positively respond to this crisis, and even perhaps include them in searching for solutions to this virus. 

We expect our students to be proficient or master 21st-century skills such as adaptability and solving new problems. What better example than focusing on what we are experiencing right now? A studio or portfolio allows students to hold and exhibit this work.

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Celebrating Student Accomplishments 

Over the last month as we have piloted Portfolium with a few students and teachers, we have come to understand the many reasons we think we are moving in the right direction. Students feel celebrated. They feel proud of what they have accomplished.  Cecilia, one of the students who piloted the portfolio, said, “I didn’t think about all of my achievements. With this portfolio I spent time looking at the papers I wrote and the projects I did and it makes me feel proud. I wish I had kept my old papers and projects and then I could compare them and see my growth as a thinker and writer.” Cecilia’s teacher, Rekha, added that, through the portfolio pilot, she became aware that they don’t celebrate their students enough. It was a good reminder of the need to do this more frequently. 

By starting these portfolios in the 9th grade, and eventually even into elementary and middle school, students, teachers, and parents will have opportunities to see growth over time and share in the celebration of their student/child. Our portfolios can act as a repository of students’ performance assessments that provide evidence of their creativity and critical and complex thinking skills. 

Finally, we want higher education to recognize the value of portfolio work in the admissions and placement process. Higher education needs a broader and deeper field of prepared candidates. As Katy stated after sharing her portfolio with our team, “We want people to see us as individuals and not numbers. My numbers are average, but I have grown so much and I have learned how to persevere.” 

It is time for a new song, time to adapt, but not revert to normal. In the words of Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”

Esther Soliman

Los Angeles Unified School District

Esther Soliman was the founder and principal of Los Angeles High School of the Arts, the first Pilot school in LA Unified and the first Linked Learning Gold Certified school in the district. She currently oversees 422 CTE pathways of which 77 are Linked Learning. She loves to see students excited, inquisitive and challenged by their learning as they work together with their peers, faculty and industry professionals on authentic, meaningful projects.

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